CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
Aside from the periodic hum of a hovering MV-22 Osprey in the distance or the muted chatter of the thousands of soldiers, sailors and Marines milling about in front of the stage, all else was silent.
Then, the warm-up began.
At once, the two Marines exhaled deep breathes of air into their respective mouthpieces and the sharp sound of their instruments pierced the air of their darkened position here. A small crowd began to form around them, but it wasn’t quite show time yet. The two Marines, Sgt. Mark Matice, a utilities NCO with Marine Wing Support Squadron 274 and Lance Cpl. Rory MacEachern, a military policeman with Combat Logistics Battalion 6, 1st Marine Logistics Group (Forward), would perform together as the opening act for the United Services Organization Toby Keith concert May 5.
Unlike most opening acts Keith fans are probably accustomed to, the two Marines marched on stage without guitars or drum sticks, but their own unique weapons of musical motivation - bagpipes.
After belting out a couple of piper classics, including “Amazing Grace,” the crowd went wild and this was perfectly okay with MacEachern, a 13-year-veteran of the bagpipe scene.
“This was the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of and it means even more because of where it is,” said MacEachern. “The whole experience, from Tobey Keith being here to everyone out having a good time, is amazing.”
That statement says quit a lot, considering the North Attleboro, Mass., native has played all over New England and Canada on a competitive level and more times than not, walked away with his band mates as victors.
MacEachern began playing at the ripe age of seven, along with his father and an uncle, after they all made a deal with one another.
“It was all about carrying on a family tradition,” said the 20-year-old. “My great grandfather played pipes in the Canadian Army during World War I. My dad, uncle and I were at the Maine Highlander Games one year and all decided we would learn how to how to play.”
Though initially he had a little trouble handling the instrument do to his youthful size, he eventually grew into it and hasn’t looked back. He has performed with four different bands and won seven of eight competitions. On one occasion, he even bested his uncle’s third place award by finishing right at the top.
“Some of the bigger events I have done back home include the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Boston – I’m sure you can imagine how insane that was and I also played along with the chief of police, of Franklin, Mass., for the mayor as part of the ‘Blue Brigade,’” said MacEachern. “Ultimately though, my dream is to finish my tour as a Marine and play with the Massachusetts State Police Bagpipe Band.”
For the time being though, he is quiet happy playing to his brothers and sisters in arms. In addition to the occasional evening performance here, MacEachern has treated the hundreds of newly-minted Marines and their families to an impromptu performance in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial upon graduating from recruit training aboard Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C. He also played as part of the graduation ceremonies upon completing military occupational specialty school aboard Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
According to MacEachern, it’s his personal way to keep spirits up.
“A lot of people are pretty surprised to hear bagpipes playing out here,” he said. “I get mixed emotions – people love it or hate it – but, for the most part Marines seem to really like it. I think it helps bring morale up and that’s always a good thing out here.”