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Hitchcock entertaining troops in Iraq

National Guard Red Bull Brian Hitchcock is heading back to entertain troops in Iraq this week after spending time with friends and family while on leave. (Submitted photo)

"Center Mass" band vocalist Brian Hitchcock put down the microphone and headed home from Iraq, briefly reassuming his role as husband and dad.

But the former Akeley mayor and member of the National Guard's 34th Red Bull Infantry Division was headed back to Iraq Sunday.

"Our mission is music," Hitchcock said of his first overseas deployment. "I'm enjoying it."

The Red Bull musicians are the first National Guard members whose role is solely to perform. He carries a rifle, but band members have taken on no security roles in the overseas mission.

He lives on the Contingency Operating Base Basra, roughly the same geographical size as Akeley. Although adept at drums (he took lessons from one of Prince's drummers), Hitchcock is behind the microphone as lead vocalist in the six-member band.

His days are spent rehearsing new repertoire or performing - at least twice a week. So far, Center Mass has entertained audiences on 18 bases and, in August on the USS Decatur.

It's thought to be the first time in history an Army band performed on a U.S. Navy destroyer.

"That was the most exciting part of the trip," Hitchcock said of performing on deck, the sailors pulling security around the Al Basrah Oil Terminal.

But it wasn't easy getting there.

The band was stranded at sea for a few hours after the boat they were on broke down.

But members of the band were determined to get out to the smaller forward operating base that rarely sees United Service Organization entertainers.

Center Mass travels by air via helicopter (Black Hawks) and roads via convoys.

The audiences range in number from small - 35 at a Navy transition base - to 1,500.

But the memorial for three soldiers killed by rocket fire on Hitchcock's base drew nearly 5,000 Red Bulls, the entire musical group performing.

"It was a sad night," he said. Indirect, inaccurate firing of the base is not uncommon, he said. This attack was believed to have been launched from a boat on the river.

"But we try to put (the danger) on the back burner and live every day to the fullest."

Time away from home is hard, he admits. But that's balanced with knowing the band takes the soldiers' minds off the task at hand.

"That's our main job," said Hitchcock, who is 40 pounds lighter than when he headed to Kuwait at the end of April. He attributes this to the heat, where temperatures soar to well over 100, with high humidity. He consumes 10 liters of water a day.

The unofficial timeline calls for him to return home in early February.

"But it's all up in the air."