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There is one thing that both critics and supporters of Tops in Blue agree on: Being part of the group is no vacation.
Former members of Tops in Blue said the pace of touring and rehearsing is grueling, and sleep is hard to come by.
“I wish it were 12-hour days,” Staff Sgt. Brittney Perry said when asked if Tops in Blue members regularly worked 12 hours a day. “It was normally 18 hours. It was hell. There was one [stretch] we pulled 36 hours. Because of a lack of sleep, our entire team was sick. There were a lot of injuries. A lack of sleep, it just messes with your body.”
Capt. Gavin Light agreed.
“I remember days when we got two or three hours of sleep,” he said. “As a result, people would start to make poor decisions.”
Perry, who was in Tops in Blue during 2011, said that a single day’s work meant members — both performers and technicians — often would have to load equipment and set up, perform, tear the stage down and reload it on the trucks, and get back on the road to arrive at the next stop on the tour.
Getting sleep on the bus often proved difficult, she said. Members would rotate through shifts in which they sat with the drivers of the bus, two 18-wheel trucks and an SUV to talk to the drivers to help keep them awake. The tours often pulled into hotels late at night, only allowing members to catch a few hours of sleep before having to get up in the morning to do it all over again, she said.
“The drivers are also crew, so they set up and tear down,” she said. “They’re supposed to get eight hours of sleep, but that hardly ever happens.”
A senior airman who drove a truck for Tops in Blue for one year agreed. Often, he said, drivers would only get three or four hours of sleep before driving for hours.
He said he was regularly told to ignore the Air Force’s rules requiring vehicle operators to get eight hours of sleep, and to periodically check equipment every three hours to make sure items had not shifted on the road.
As a result, he said, Tops in Blue often arrived at venues to find something was crushed or broken or cracked.
When asked if Tops in Blue’s strenuous schedule sometimes resulted in people operating buses, setting up and tearing down stages, and performing other duties on only a few hours’ sleep, the Air Force said it recently finished reviewing the group’s schedule and made changes to its operations tempo.
In addition to the reduced number of shows this year, the Air Force said, “the schedule is designed so that the team will set up and tear down on separate days, ensuring team members perform all their duties safely and efficiently.”
Perry said an incorrectly assembled stage led to her falling 8 feet off the stage midshow in spring 2011 at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. A metal connector that was supposed to be under a carpet was exposed, she said, and she tripped on it. She said she grabbed a railing to catch her fall, but it wasn’t tightened and fell off the stage with her.
“I requested to go to the ER, and they let me go,” Perry said. “They told me I had a concussion, gave me medication, and told me I needed to rest. I was not allowed to rest because we had shows to do. I did not stop traveling.”
Perry said her fall injuries worsened while she kept performing, and about two or three months later, something snapped in her wrist. A doctor put a cast on her broken wrist, she said, and gave her pain medications that made her sleepy. That became a problem, she said.
She said she worked out a deal with Tops in Blue leadership where she would not take her pain medication before a show. She helped set up the stage and performed in her cast. But because her pain was so bad, she said, she had to take medication after the show and was unable to tear down.
“They let me do that for a few shows, and then it became a problem,” she said. “ ‘She’s not pulling her weight, she’s not doing this, she’s not doing that.’ I’m in so much pain that I can’t function.”
Perry said that on a rare day off in Colorado, she was ordered to stay in her hotel room. She instead went to get a massage at a hot spring in Buena Vista with Light and another member — “that’s all I did, no partying, no drinking” — and when she returned, her personal items had been put in trash bags and she was put on the first flight home.
Perry also said she developed an eating disorder while on tour with Tops in Blue. She said she was 155 pounds, and never failed a physical training or tape test, but was told she had to get down to 135 pounds.
Two other female airmen were told they were too skinny and had to put on weight, she said.
“I was told I’d get kicked off the tour if I didn’t lose weight on time,” Perry said.
Perry said her eating disorder progressed until she ended up in the hospital after she was kicked off the tour. She said she knew of no other members who developed eating disorders.
“It’s no joke — you’d weigh in every morning,” Perry said. “You do what you got to do to lose weight. Nobody wants to get kicked off the tour. That’d be awful.”
Tops in Blue had punishing rehearsal schedules, Perry said, sometimes practicing for 15 or so hours, with breaks for lunch and dinner.
Perry, who began playing the trumpet in 1996, said she sought out Tops in Blue because of her love of music and performing. But her enthusiasm waned as the months went by.
“It takes the joy out of playing,” Perry said. “When your lips are bleeding, and you’re putting hemorrhoid cream on your mouth to heal up for the few hours you’re not playing ... you can’t expect your body to play 15 to 16 hours a day.”
And after all that, Perry and Light said they rarely felt like they were genuinely entertaining troops. Stateside shows were usually primarily attended by civilians and retirees, they said.
“One time in Korea, one of the lieutenants said [to some troops stationed there], ‘Hey, come to a show,’ ” Perry said. “They said, ‘I’m not going to watch that.’ Nobody takes the show seriously.”
Today, Perry said, she has rediscovered her enthusiasm for music and performs at local jazz bars, clubs, retirement shows and funerals.
“I play when I want to,” Perry said.