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Presenting the colors to the Blues Foundation
By Eric Steiner
Paul Benjamin (left) receiving a US flag from Rocky Nelson at the May, 2009 Board Meeting of the Blues Foundation (Photo by Eric Steiner)

During the May 2009 meeting of the Blues Foundation Board of Directors, Blues DJ and Washington Blues Society member Rocky Nelson presented a flag flown in an US Air Force fighter jet in Afghanistan to Paul Benjamin, Chairman of the Board of the Blues Foundation.

The following is the speech that Rocky developed seven hours earlier in his room at the Blues Music Awards’ host hotel, the downtown Memphis Marriott. While I offered a few suggestions here and there, I was primarily there to help plunder Rocky’s private stock that he brought from the duty-free shop the week before in the US Virgin Islands. Paul invited Steve Simon to introduce Rocky and kick off the Board meeting after introductions of Board members and guests. Steve is the director of the Johnnie Walker St. John Blues Festival in the US Virgin Islands, and co-producer, along with manager John Hahn, of Bluzapalooza. Bluzapalooza is the world’s first all-star blues tour that has entertained troops in Iraq, Kuwait, and Egypt in partnership with Armed Forces Entertainment, the lead Department of Defense agency providing entertainment to U.S. military personnel serving overseas.

Like the Washington Blues Society, Hahn is also a recipient of a 2009 Keeping the Blues Alive award.

Rocky stood next to Paul Benjamin at the Majestic restaurant and delivered the following remarks:

“I have served at the pleasure of the American people as a civilian for the US Army Corps of Engineers at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan for the past 22 months. It is truly an honor to be before the Board of Directors of the Blues Foundation this morning.

My name is Rocky Nelson and I am a volunteer for the American Forces Network in Afghanistan where the local nationals call me “Rock Khan,” which is the name I use when I am on the air.

It is a privilege to play what Morgan Freeman has called ‘America’s classical music’ to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines along with the many civilians like me deployed in the Middle East.

I am not here to make a political statement. No matter what your political affiliation may be, I hope you can recognize with me the hard work our young men and women are doing in Afghanistan.

I started my blues journey a long time ago while listening to my favorite rock and roll bands play hits from the great blues legends. Can you remember the first time you heard “Crossroads.?”

I volunteered for the Washington Blues Society in Seattle and became the Secretary of the Board. The Society’s meetings were held at Seattle’s longest-running, continuous blues venue called the Salmon Bay Eagles in the historic Ballard neighborhood. I was a volunteer for that organization dedicated to community service, too. I was the ‘Worthy Chaplain.’

Now, the Taliban consider me an infidel. Go figure.

I’m living proof that even heathens like me can heal through blues music.

As you may know, the US Air Force flies daily combat missions against terrorists who want to harm our interests in the Middle East. On each mission, there is a US flag – the stars and stripes – behind the pilot’s seat. I had this flag flown in honor of the blues artists and supporters of America’s original art form – blues music – and it is an honor for me to present this flag and certificate to Paul Benjamin of the Blues Foundation Board of Directors. I hope that you treasure this memento of service as much as I deeply appreciate the work of the Blues Foundation.

We share a common love for a music that expresses pain, hope, joy and love, and I wanted to thank you all for making me feel welcome in the community and family that is the blues.”

As Rocky finished, the entire room erupted in applause of appreciation. While I was focused on my camera’s viewfinder to capture this moment, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that he also received a standing ovation.

Rocky’s time on R & R stateside is very limited, and it was great to hang out with him again. While his vacation would end in less than a week, I’m glad that he attended the 2009 Blues Music Awards and toured the Mississippi Delta. Later that night during a break at Watermelon Slim’s gig, he presented a flag and certificate to Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, and hung out with GZBC partners Bill Luckett and Morgan Freeman.

Perhaps the most touching moment of all came when Watermelon Slim (himself a veteran) played Taps to a very sober house for those heroes who have not returned home alive. It was all the more poignant as Rocky sees the coffins when the airfield honors their sacrifice with the fallen comrade ceremony.

While Rocky’s time Memphis and the Delta will likely be a high point of his year, one thing that really impressed me was something that he did before he left Bagram Airfield. To make sure that American Forces Radio kept the the Blues Power Hour alive in his three-week absence, he recruited the station manager to fill in for him and she readily agreed.

Now, that’s what I call keeping the blues alive for the men and women who are serving our country overseas.

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