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Fifteen Soldiers Selected to Participate in ‘Black Jack Idol’

By Sgt. Robert Yde, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

FORWARD OPERATING BASE PROSPERITY, Iraq, July 2, 2007 – Like many people, Maj. Michael Duck has an addiction. His vice is shared by millions of people throughout the world, a fact that is easily confirmed by the high ratings that their obsessions provide to television stations.

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Cameron, S.C., native Pfc. Alphonso Izzard, with Company A, 15th Brigade Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, sings during auditions for “Black Jack Idol” at Forward Operating Base Prosperity, in central Baghdad, June 5. Photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kap Kim, USA

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“I’m a fan of reality TV,” Duck said, admitting to his guilty pleasure.

Duck, chief of operations for 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, said one show in particular, “American Idol,” is a favorite of his, and he recently came up with the idea of replicating the premise of the show in Baghdad.

Throughout June, soldiers have been encouraged to try out the brigade’s version of the hit show, dubbed “Black Jack Idol.”

“We devised this competition after ‘American Idol,’ and we thought we’d do something for the soldiers and their morale,” the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native explained. “We worked on this to try to come up with something for them, and that’s basically how we got it started.”

Just like the real “American Idol,” a weekly competition during which contestants vying for a recording contract sing and either move to the next round or are eliminated based on their performance, Black Jack Idol started off with several weeks of auditions.

The auditions were held twice a week and alternated between Forward Operating Base Prosperity and Forward Operating Base Union III. As on American Idol, soldiers performed in front of a three-judge panel.

Acting as the judges were Duck, 2nd Lt. Ruben Acosta, the brigade’s assistant personnel officer, and Maj. Stephanie Sanderson, the brigade’s judge advocate.

“I’m looking for confidence, a nice full voice, someone who is outgoing and can perform in front of people and show their talents,” Acosta said of the criteria he expects potential contestants to meet.

Acosta, who is originally from San Antonio, said he was invited to be a judge after Duck learned that he had spent five years as a high school band director in Texas.

“It’s a chance for soldiers who have some abilities or talents to show it,” he said of the competition. “And so far, it’s been really interesting.”

During the auditions, contestants were able to sing whatever they wanted, with the only stipulation being that the performance had to be a cappella, a fact that Acosta said he took into consideration.

“It’s kind of nerve wracking because there’s no music behind them,” he explained. “A lot of people are used to singing in a vehicle or in the privacy of their room. Now they have to come out here and sing with no background music or anything, and that’s really tough; so you always give them the benefit of the doubt.”

Once the actual competition starts, however, the contestants will be backed by music provided from a karaoke machine, and each week a different genre of music will be featured, forcing them to demonstrate their vocal diversity -- or lack thereof.

“We’re going to pick the tone and genre of music during the competition, so each week is going to be a different person or different type of music they’re going to have to sing,” Duck said. “We’re going to see what they can do with a vast variety of types of music.”

While the soldiers who auditioned said they obviously love music, their experiences performing varied.

"I've sang in church, and I've played in bands,” said Pfc. Daniel Jens, a Milwaukee native with Company B, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery Regiment. “I've played in front of a few people and up to 5,000 people."

Jens performed Edwin McCain’s “A Prayer to St. Peter,” because, he said, it allowed him to show off his vocal range and he appreciates the song’s message. “It’s about soldiers and St. Peter letting the soldiers into heaven regardless of what they did on earth,” he explained.

Jens said he didn’t do much to prepare for the audition because he sings all the time anyway. “I love performing, and I've got a lot of friends and family and people who I've met playing that like hearing me," he added.

Like Jens, Pvt. Stacey Hanson, a medic with the brigade’s headquarters, said that friends have told her she has a good singing voice and was encouraged to try out for the competition although she has no experience performing in public.

“I try to play my guitar and sing along with that and had a couple people tell me I have a nice voice if I would just sing a little louder, so I just wanted to give it a try," the San Antonio native said.

Although she said her audition, for which she sang Don Henley’s “End of Innocence,” was not perfect, she was pleased with her performance. “I’m glad I got some constructive criticism, especially since I’ve never sang in front of people or professionally,” she said. “I think I've got a little bit of work to do, but I feel really good about it today."

Going into the auditions, the judges said they didn’t have a certain number of contestants in mind for the competition and have settled on 15 soldiers to participate in the eight-week competition, which they are planning to begin around July 21.

As contestants are eliminated, and they get closer to the finals, Duck said they hope to have the 1st Cavalry Division Band provide music for the singers, which he said will give the competition more of a live-concert feel.

He also said a grand prize has not been decided on, but right now he is expecting the winner to receive a sound system and a four-day pass to Qatar.

Regardless of the prize, though, Sanderson said the competition is all about letting soldiers showcase their talents in front of peers and have fun doing it.

“I enjoy anything that makes the soldiers happy,” she said. “All soldiers are individuals, and it’s good to give them something to display their talents. I’m having a great time so far.”

(Sgt. Robert Yde is assigned to 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageSpc. Brandon Wilson, a native of San Francisco assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, 1st Squadron, 14th Cavalry Regiment, attached to 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, auditions for “Black Jack Idol,” a singing competition patterned after the hit show, “American Idol,” at Forward Operating Base Union III, in central Baghdad, June 9. Photo by Sgt. Robert Yde, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMaj. Michael Duck (left), of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Maj. Stephanie Sanderson, of Raymer, Ala.; and 2nd Lt. Ruben Acosta, of San Antonio, listen as soldiers from 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, audition for “Black Jack Idol” on June 12. The three officers are judging the event, which is based off of the hit show “American Idol.” Photo by Sgt. Robert Yde, USA  
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