Band warrant officer is state’s longest serving commander

By Staff Sgt. Thomas Kielbasa
Florida National Guard Public Affairs

News story photo
Photo credit: Florida National Guard Public Affairs
CW5 Douglas A. Phifer
MIAMI – When Chief Warrant Officer Douglas Phifer took command of his unit in April 1978, disco dancing was still popular, Jimmy Carter was president, and a postage stamp only cost thirteen cents.

Now, nearly 30 years later, Phifer is still in charge of the Miami-based 13th Army Band and is the longest serving commander in the Florida Army National Guard.

“I’ve been commander of the same unit since that time,” Phifer, 57, said. “It has been quite a lengthy stay.”
Phifer’s longevity as a unit commander is unheard of in most National Guard units, according to 50th Area Support Group Commander Col. Joseph Duren.

“This is very unusual, because normally unit commanders are rotated out after three or four years,” Duren explained. “We do that to continually develop new leaders. But the band is a unique unit with a warrant officer as a commander, and Mr. Phifer has tremendous talent and passion of leading.”

Phifer enlisted in the military in 1971 while he was a junior attending the University of Miami, and after receiving a degree in music education joined the 13th Army Band as a tuba and trombone player, and associate conductor. Six years later Phifer took command of the band and was commissioned as a warrant officer by Col. Robert Ensslin – who later served as Florida’s Adjutant General.

To most people who have seen the band play, Phifer is a familiar site with baton in one hand and leading the Soldiers through songs from the “Star-Spangled Banner” to “God Bless America.”

“The main purpose of a commander in a band unit is conducting,” Phifer explained. “Musicians don’t just get up and play – they have to be trained on what they’re playing.”

In addition to his National Guard service, Phifer is Director of Marketing and Special Projects for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and teaches “Introduction to Computers” on-line for Miami-Dade Community College.

He highlighted the differences between instructing Army band members and teaching his college students, noting that the standards for military musicians are more stringent.

Phifer said that if his students missed five percent of their exam questions, they would still easily pass, but it would be a different story for the 13th Army Band members: “If the bandsmen missed five percent of the notes they play, or played them at the wrong time, I’d be fired.”

He said that because the 13th Army Band plays so many high-profile events – including Florida governors’ inaugurations and major National Guard conferences, their performance is always under scrutiny.

“Maybe one of the things we learn from being a bandsman is that we have to be as close to perfect as possible,” he noted. “…We try to strive for perfection.”

Phifer estimated less than 25 percent of the 55 Soldiers in the band are professional civilian musicians, but the majority has full-time jobs ranging from corrections officer to insurance salesperson. The band itself is arranged into five teams – two ceremonial teams, a Latin band, a rock group, and a stage band – and can be broken out to play different events simultaneously.

During Phifer’s command the 13th Army Band has performed for several U.S. presidents, U.S. and foreign dignitaries, and even played as far away as Morocco, Panama, and Costa Rica. Phifer has also participated in every Florida governor’s inauguration during the last 32 years, including the most recent inauguration of Gov. Charlie Crist on Jan. 2.

“A lot of people will say the band director is an easy gig, but the fact of the matter is it is a hard job; you get very tense about whether something is going to be played right during a ceremony,” Phifer said.

He also noted that the hours invested by all the band members each year are incredible, and it is not unheard of for his musicians to put in a twenty-hour day in support of a band engagement. During one of these marathon days they leave their homes at five or six in the morning, travel all day, rehearse, set up the instruments for the show, perform until nine or ten o’clock at night, breakdown the instruments, go to sleep, and the next morning get right back up and travel home or to the next performance.
“The public just sees that three or four hours you’re sitting there playing and doesn’t see all that prep-time or the logistics involved,” Phifer explained.

As he prepares for an upcoming retirement in two years, Phifer remembered the band’s service in support of Hurricane Andrew in 1992 as one of his career highlights. It was in the aftermath of the devastating storm in south Florida that the 13th Army Band was tasked with playing for storm victims living in crowded tents in Homestead, Fla.

“It was just great seeing some joy come back on the faces of the little kids and families that were living in a big tent that was hot,” he remembered. “We took a circus clown with us, a cotton candy machine, a popcorn machine, and a generator.”

The band converted a rental truck into a mobile sound system and visited different sites where storm evacuees were living. While the band played, the performers – including a lady with live pet-snakes – entertained the families and passed out cotton candy, popcorn, coloring books and balloon animals.

“We did 39 performances during a two or three week period,” he said. “That was a highlight, but I think my whole career has been a highlight.”

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