Tops in Blue: building more than morale

Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Air Commandos and Curry County residents fill a local auditorium for the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jette Carr)

Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., Air Commandos and Curry County residents fill a local auditorium for the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jette Carr)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tonie Marshall, 849th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., shouts out some high notes during the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jette Carr)

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Tonie Marshall, 849th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., shouts out some high notes during the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jette Carr)

The U.S. Air Force Tops in Blue band provides back up music instrumentals for vocalists at their first live performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexxis Pons Abascal)

The U.S. Air Force Tops in Blue band provides back up music instrumentals for vocalists at their first live performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexxis Pons Abascal)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Jonathan Leak, 324th Intelligence Squadron Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, hits a high notes during the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexxis Pons Abascal)

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Jonathan Leak, 324th Intelligence Squadron Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, hits a high notes during the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexxis Pons Abascal)

The U.S. Air Force Tops in Blue members sing the final song of the evening during the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexxis Pons Abascal)

The U.S. Air Force Tops in Blue members sing the final song of the evening during the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alexxis Pons Abascal)

Tops in Blue crew members unload stage equipments for the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jette Carr)

Tops in Blue crew members unload stage equipments for the first 2012 Tops in Blue performance held at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. The ensemble provides quality entertainment utilizing talented Airmen from every rank within the force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jette Carr)

CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. -- The Tops in Blue 2012 World Tour, "Listen", opened with their first performance of the year at Marshall Auditorium, Clovis, N.M., May 28, 2012. Bringing entertainment to Air Commandos from Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and community members, the group sang and danced for an audience of nearly 1,000 people.

Tops in Blue is an expeditionary entertainment group within the Air Force that raises morale and aids recruiting efforts. The program also serves another purpose that is not often visible to the general public - it builds quality Airmen.

"Tops in Blue isn't just a morale building positive gig," said Staff Sgt. Marc Hightower, 27th Special Operations Component Maintenance Squadron, Tops in Blue 2009. "It is a life changing motivator that grooms its Airmen to become just what this Air Force needs. Each member that is chosen for Tops in Blue is special in some way. Their talents and particular skill sets are fine-tuned and challenged until they reach a level that is 'truly among the best'."

"One of our goals in Tops in Blue is to give Airmen back to their Squadron's stronger than when they first joined the team," said Tom Edwards, Tops in Blue producer. "In this program, they are exposed daily to a side of the Air Force, that in their particular career field, they might never get to see. They experience the entire Air Force from one end to the other during their travels."

They push through emergencies, vehicle mishaps, breakdowns and other situations that require people to think about how to react and act efficiently, said Edwards. These Airmen are taught the importance of timeliness and how to be effective in every aspect - from setting up the truss and audio to packing faster to meet demanding schedules. They learn a great deal about how to be a better Airman.

Tops in Blue is no joyride, said Edwards. The team usually works a minimum of 16 hours per day, during which, work ethic improves considerably. Through this program, Airmen learn how much they can truly accomplish in a day.

The performers are their own "roadies" and learn the technical aspect of assembling the stage, from audio and lighting to power. They unload and reload more than 60,000 pounds of equipment to set up each show.

"I think my tour had one of the most elaborate sets to put together and tear down," said Tech. Sgt. Marco Puente, 27th Special Operations Wing Command Post, Tops in Blue 2001. "Our average time to set up was around 12 hours, and tear down took nearly 10 hours. It seemed like we worked non-stop with very little rest between shows."

This complicated stage was still not the biggest hardship Puente's team faced. While their team was performing in another country, terrorists attacked America on September 11, 2001.

"We had to deal with the tragic attacks on our nation and re-wrote our show while stuck in Germany. The only way we got through it was being there for each other. I think of the cast from 2001 as my brothers and sisters. They were and will always be my extended family. I wouldn't have gotten though that year without them."

Each tour has its own unique challenges. For Staff Sgt. Candice Fagan, 56th Intelligence Squadron, Tops in Blue 2010, being separated from her husband and two young boys was an extra test of strength. As the only mother on the 2010 tour, she learned to balance the traveling and show schedule to allow time to keep in touch with her family.

"While other people on the team could go to sleep, I was up talking to my family," she said. "Sometimes sleep was nonexistent, but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make as a mother. It was sometimes difficult to fit in the family time with a constantly packed schedule."

"For example, toward the end of our tour, we performed four shows in four days in four different states," she said. "We would get to the location, set up the stage, take a short nap if we could fit it in, perform for close to two hours, tear the set down and load the trucks, then drive to the next location to start the process over again."

Because of this experience Fagan said she learned to adapt and overcome. Things don't always go as planned and keeping a positive attitude despite it all is key. She said that as a member of Tops in Blue she gained patience and the ability to work effectively with many different personalities, accepting others for who they are.

These changes in work ethic and attitude go a long way no only on tour, but in their Air Force career as well.

"When these Airmen come off tour, if they go back to work at an easy job, they will get lost," said Edwards. "At that point, they are ready to go back and show their peers that they know how to be the 'best of the best'. Hopefully, if there are some other Airmen struggling in their squadron when they get back, they have also learned some ways of pulling those Airmen up to their standard."

"We have had a number of Tops in Blue priors go on to be Chief Master Sergeants, Command Chiefs and Colonels," said Edwards. "We don't have any Generals yet, but we're still working on that. The current commandant of the First Sergeant school was a member of Tops in Blue. We've also had people that have been selected to become flight attendants on Air Force One and Air Force Two."

Despite the long hours and hard work, the strengths gained personally by each member of this program make it all worth the struggle, said Fagan.

To the Airmen participating in the 2012 Tops in Blue World Tour, Puente offered these words: "It will be the hardest, most fun, saddest, loneliest and most ruthless year of your life all at the same time, but when it's over, you will look back and say, 'that was the best year of my life'.