Tom Weber and Patrick Caraulia qualified for the event after their rock/blues band, Masked Rangers, placed first in the annual competition. The third member of the group, Gary Pochert, was unable to attend due to health problems.
While the band didn’t perform at the festival, which took place in April in St. Louis, Weber and Caraulia were part of the vocal chorus that sang during the weeklong festival’s finale. They were also flag bearers for part of the show, holding the flags of the military branches.
“It’s a big deal,” Weber said, noting there are more than 3,000 entries nationwide for the festival, which includes visual, creative writing, dance, drama and music divisions. Only the entries that earn gold medals make it to the national stage.
“You put your body and soul into this, and to get rewarded is awesome,” Caraulia said.
The chorus members spent the week rehearsing, working in small groups during the day before coming together on Sunday for the finale, which was hectic but enjoyable, the two said.
“It was go, go, go,” Caraulia said. “But they treated us like stars. It was awesome. And when that curtain went up and you saw all the people, it was very emotional.”
“It was challenging, but we knew once we got on stage, everything was going to be OK,” Weber said.
But it wasn’t all work and no play. The duo were able to tour the National Blues Museum, go up in the Gateway Arch, attend a St. Louis Cardinals game and also check out all the other entries and performances at the festival.
“And we made a lot of friends,” Weber said.
“It was one of the best weeks of my life,” Caraulia said.
The band, which has been known as The Jam Band and East to West Allis, has had different members through the years, but they’re something of a mainstay at the Milwaukee VA as part of the hospital’s outpatient recreation and music therapy.
Before the pandemic, the band would perform in the hospital’s recreation hall and at other Milwaukee VA events.
Caraulia, 70, is a U.S. Marine Corps Veteran originally from Hawaii, where he worked as a firefighter. He played in rock and jazz bands in his youth and was a graphic artist while in the Marines.
His grandfather was an Army bandmaster, and he has other relatives who are integral parts of the Hawaiian music scene.
“I have a cousin who is the Liberace of Hawaii,” he said. “And his son played with Al Jarreau.”
He came to Milwaukee about seven years ago and hooked up with the band after seeing one of the members holding a guitar while riding the elevator in the hospital up to the rec hall.
Weber, 75, a Milwaukee native and Marine Corps Veteran, served two years in Vietnam, one of those “in the bush,” mostly in the Da Nang area. He was also in the Tet Offensive. After his service, he became a house painter.
Like Caraulia, he’s been involved with music most of his life, playing in bands since the 1960s. The music therapy program drew him to the Milwaukee VA in 2004, where he met Poschert and the band had its beginnings.
Caraulia plays drums while Weber is a guitarist. Both handle vocals as well.
And while they said they perform mostly for the enjoyment of it, they recognize the therapeutic aspects as well.
“Music and art are important for our well-being,” Caraulia said. “Art and music have helped keep me grounded in civilian life.”
“You offer up your talent, and that’s the therapy,” Weber said.
Caraulia said he is thankful for the music therapists and recreation therapy programs that have helped so many Veterans like himself.
“A lot of the Veterans need this,” he said. “Kudos to the hospital; if it wasn’t for them, I don’t think these things would be available to Veterans.”
The two want to keep on playing and have their sights set on performing at next year’s national festival in Denver, Colorado.
“After our week in St. Louis, we got an idea of what it takes,” Caraulia said. “But the main thing is to enjoy the music. And even if we don’t go, we had fun. That’s the key.”
Check out these photos from the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival finale.
Watch the Masked Rangers perform "Run Around Sue," "Fade Away" and "Stand By Me."