Tech. Sgt. Douglas Boren, a vocalist on Tops in Blue's 2011 tour, said that while Tops in Blue may not be enjoyed by everybody, that doesn't mean it should be scrapped. (Airman 1st Class Andrea Salazar / Air Force)
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Former members of Tops in Blue, the Air Force’s traveling musical performance troupe, are disputing criticisms that the program is wasteful and unappreciated by many airmen.
In interviews with Air Force Times, members of the 2011 Tops in Blue tour said that while some airmen may not like the show, they often saw hundreds or sometimes thousands of airmen and families turn out for performances — enough to pack nine out of 10 concerts and to show Tops in Blue still has a strong following.
“There’s a reason we do multiple shows at Kadena [Air Base in Japan] and the Air Force Academy, because they want to come see it,” said Tech. Sgt. Doug Boren, a vocalist on Tops in Blue’s 2011 tour. “The Air Force Academy cadet crowd is the rowdiest, most energetic crowd I’ve been in front of. This is the future of the Air Force, and they’re having the time of their lives.”
Boren also disagreed with critics’ assertions in May 5 articles in Air Force Times that airmen are sometimes ordered to attend Tops in Blue shows.
“They’re completely voluntary,” Boren said. “I can name multiple venues where people have been turned away because they can’t get in. We get to a building, and there’s a line of 500 or 600 people lined up, and the doors aren’t even opened yet. These are active-duty airmen coming to shows; they aren’t ordered to come. If they are [ordered], their commanders are wrong, and I will tell commanders they are wrong to tell people to go to the show. But I never heard that once.”
Air Force Times made multiple requests for interviews with Tops in Blue officials and members before publishing the May 5 articles, and those requests were denied. The articles quoted former Tops in Blue members who described grueling schedules, unfair treatment and excessive costume and instrument purchases. Boren contacted Air Force Times to offer a rebuttal, and passed along contact information for other former members.
The articles drew dozens more comments from airmen who thought the shows should be canceled. They cited Tops in Blue as an example of perceived misplaced priorities as the Air Force reduces its force, retires planes and scales back on base services.
“Entertaining the few troops and dependents that attend the shows of their own free will, as well as nursing homes and hospitals, does not justify the $1.4 million budget, let alone the estimated $1.2 million in base pay and unknown man hours lost to airmen not working at their primary duty,” reader Mike Gomez wrote online. “And for the Air Force to make an official statement that ‘Tops in Blue represents an outstanding value to the Air Force’ just goes to show how out of touch leadership is with their troops.”
“This is one of the simplest decisions you’ll ever have, Air Force,” reader Jamey Haigh wrote. “If you can’t eliminate something as unnecessary and wasteful as TIB, then you’ll have little credibility when cutting other programs that actually contribute to the purpose you have for being created and continuing to exist.”
But Boren said that while Tops in Blue may not be enjoyed by everybody, that doesn’t mean it should be scrapped.
“I don’t use the bowling alley, [or] the golf course, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value,” Boren said. “That doesn’t mean we need to get rid of it. It just means I don’t use it.”
And the prior Tops in Blue members say many benefits of the program can’t be quantified
“You can’t measure the smiles and thank yous you get,” said Senior Airman Max Hulett, the drummer and bandleader on the 2011 tour. He also was on the abbreviated 2013 holiday tour.
Hulett recalled a show Tops in Blue played for troops stationed in the United Arab Emirates a day or two before Christmas that year. After the show, Hulett said, a tech sergeant asked the Tops in Blue member playing Santa Claus if he would videochat with her and her son, so her son would know that his mom was OK and met Santa.
“The smile that came across her son’s face, and the tech sergeant’s face,” Hulett said. “There are countless stories like that. The true happiness it does bring people, whether they’re military or civilian.”
But during tough budget times, eliminating Tops in Blue often comes up as a suggestion for saving money. Hulett said he tries to take criticism of the program with a grain of salt.
“It seems the people with the most negative things to say have never seen Tops in Blue, or if they went, they had a preconceived notion that it’s a waste of time and resources,” Hulett said. “It’s unfortunate to see so much negativity out there aimed at a program that the objective is to make people happy and bring smiles to their faces. It seems like there’s a lot of hate out there, that’s not very well founded. Not very well researched, anyway.”
Hulett and Boren said band members, while on tour, don’t receive the usual per diem that airmen on temporary duty receive. Boren said they receive an extra $8 a day, or $112 paid out every two weeks.
“It’s not like people are making an insane amount of per diem each day,” Hulett said.
The prior members also said being part of Tops in Blue was a terrific experience that had a major effect on their lives.
Former Staff Sgt. Tommie Crutcher, a vocalist on the 2008 and 2011 tours, said he was having difficulty adjusting to the Air Force before discovering Tops in Blue.
“When I was in basic, I was still lost,” Crutcher said. “I didn’t think I could handle it. I needed some sign. Then one day, they made me go to ‘mandatory fun’ — that was a 2006 Tops in Blue show. This rejuvenated me and made me go, ‘OK, maybe I can do this.’ ”
He tried out and made the team, and said being part of it forced him to grow up and figure out how he could be a better airman.
“As we traveled, it wasn’t just us going around singing for people,” Crutcher said. “We were giving people hope.”
And Boren said Tops in Blue tries to comfort wounded warriors at hospitals such as Landstuhl in Germany, and pay their respects to fallen troops. During July 2011, the team boarded a C-17 in Afghanistan that was also carrying a draped casket carrying Army Sgt. Lex Lewis. After the plane arrived in Kuwait, Tops in Blue sang “Irish Blessing” in tribute, at the chaplain’s request, then saluted as the remains were transported from the aircraft.
“Tops in Blue is serving those who even passed away in combat,” Boren said. “We’re reaching out and touching every branch of the service, making a difference.”