FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (Aug. 7, 2020) — Spc. Joseph Murrell, a trombonist with the 399th Army Band, was named U.S. Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence Soldier of the Year at the 2020 Best Warrior Competition in July, but that accolade does little to explain the totality of his – and his family’s – service to this country.
“On my dad’s side, almost every man minus my dad has served in some way,” Murrell said. “I was going to the University of Cincinnati when I decided to join the Army, knowing only that my grandfather went to Fort Benning. I didn’t know that virtually everybody before him served as well, going back to the 1860s.”
Murrell’s distant relative, Pvt. William Murrell, escaped slavery and fled to Ohio around 1863, according to anecdotal family evidence and Murrell’s own research. Murrell, the former, joined the Union Army and served in the 109th United States Colored Troop, participating in the siege of Petersburg.
“A runaway slave back then – he decided to serve, I can only assume because he believed the country could be something different,” he said. “He believed what the Union was doing was worth something. I think about him every day. That spirit of service and the optimism in pessimistic times is super important – it’s the essence of patriotism.”
But it is because of his family’s service that his own career in the Army has a profound meaning, he said.
“I do think about service in the military differently, given the example set by Pvt. William Murrell,” he said. “Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement – it’s based on the idea that America issued us a promise; it’s always been about what the country could be and people believing that it can be better – a uniting message.”
While reflecting on his own time in the Army, Murrell connected the past to the present.
“Maybe just because where the country is now, I think about it,” he said. “Nobody can say life is worse now than it was in 1864 – I think it’s fair that I say that. That man, William Murrell, ran away from slavery, and he could have done a million things, but instead, he joined the Union Army. I’m sure he was bitter. You read Frederick Douglass – there’s bitterness, but there’s also forgiveness, especially later in his life. Douglass’ message was also unifying, and I think about Murrell all the time.”
Murrell gathered lessons from his own family’s history, and he transposed them over the optimism he feels for the future.
“You can look at history and see it as this terrible thing to be ashamed of, or you can see it as a nation that is slowly making its way toward a more realized version of what it was supposed to be – becoming, over time, better and better,” he said.
Murrell’s own Army story
Murrell, who was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but raised outside Louisville, did not join the Army immediately following high school, as some enlisted Soldiers do. Nevertheless, he said, the desire was still there even as a teenager.
“Before I decided to go to college, the band from Fort Knox came by recruiting and I talked to a recruiter and was really thinking about joining them right out of high school,” he said. “But the recruiter learned of the scholarship (I earned) and suggested I go to college, get my degree out of the way, and then, if I still wanted to do it, the Army Band wasn’t going anywhere.”
And sure enough, he found his way back to the Army Band. After earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Louisville, pursuing a Master’s degree at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, and playing for the Cincinnati Philharmonic Orchestra, Murrell enlisted – however, his desire to serve came from a stronger desire to perform for service members, he said.
“My motivation was just to serve Soldiers in some kind of small way,” he said. “I never considered it as me becoming a Soldier. Basic Combat Training really did a good job of changing the way I thought about it. It is service, but its Soldiers serving Soldiers. I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be nice to use my skills to play for somebody who is deployed?’”
Soldier of the Year
Murrell admitted that his Army story differs from the norm; he serves at his first duty station at 30 years old. However, he said his age may have given him an advantage when competing for, and ultimately winning, the title of Soldier of the Year.
“One thing that helped me is simply being older, having done a lot of interviews and being comfortable and confident with myself,” he said. “A lot of it is how confident you are because, at some point, you’re going to have to be confident in a situation where you’re uncomfortable, and there’s not a lot that’s more uncomfortable than sitting in front of a bunch of sergeants major and answering questions.”
Staff Sgt. Robert Manning, Murrell’s direct supervisor, said Murrell’s achievement stands as a testament to his character.
“I’m obviously very, very proud of him,” he said. “The amount he has accomplished in such a short period of time in the Army – Spc. Murrell has got to be one of the most humble yet driven Soldiers I’ve ever had the honor of working with.”
Murrell revealed that confidence isn’t based in perfectionism, but rather in perfectly giving his all.
“What it takes for me to feel competent is not necessarily knowing every answer,” he said. “It’s knowing there’s no possible way I could have worked any harder prior to that moment.”
Manning called Murrell’s work ethic and positive attitude “infectious.”
“He doesn’t just work to achieve his own goals,” he said. “He has the type of personality that also lifts up those around him.”
And the importance Murrell puts on preparation may have come from his background in music.
Traditions and a career
The 2019 Soldier of the Year also came from the 399th Army Band; Manning hopes his unit can keep the streak alive.
“I’m not sure if two years makes it a tradition just yet, but I do know that we have a couple of junior Soldiers who have their sights set on next year’s competition,” he said. “We hope to be able to carry on the torch going forward.”
Murrell said musical training may help compose these Soldiers for the rigorous competitive process.
“Musicians are used to the consequences of performing when you haven’t been prepared,” he said. “Rehearsing all the time helps because it teaches you that you can’t cram. You have to have the ability to manufacture confidence when you need it.”
Murrell now rehearses with the 399th’s brass quintet, one of five different small groups that cover a wide range of music and, he said, often plays at events simultaneously.
“The way the Army structures the band gives us a lot of versatility,” he said. “We cover a lot of genres and complete a lot of different missions, anything from small ceremonies to much bigger events. We have something setup all the time. When you see a group of us on post, there’s usually another group playing somewhere else.”
He said even with his more advanced age than some other specialists, he plans to make Army service, and music within it, a career.
“I think my (family) would be proud for sure,” he said. “I’m kind of picking up the tradition.”
(Editor’s note: GUIDON Managing Editor Brian Hill contributed to this story.)
About Fort Leonard Wood
Fort Leonard Wood is a thriving and prosperous installation that has evolved from a small basic training post more than 75 years ago to a premier Army Center of Excellence that trains more than 80,000 military and civilians each year.
Fort Leonard Wood is home to the U.S Army Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and three U.S. Army schools: the U.S. Army Engineer School; U.S. Army Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear School; and the U.S. Army Military Police School. In addition to training engineer, CBRN and military police specialties for the Army, Fort Leonard Wood also provides gender-integrated in-processing and Basic Combat Training for new Soldiers.
Fort Leonard Wood also hosts and trains with the largest Marine Corps Detachment and Air Force Squadron on any Army installation as well as a large Navy construction detachment.
More information about Fort Leonard Wood is at: https://home.army.mil/wood/index.php/about/mission