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Wednesday, Jul. 27, 2011

Officer candidate strikes new chord in the Army

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Silas Huff isn’t your average officer candidate. In fact, he’s swapping the prestige and affluence of a maestro’s baton for an Army combat uniform.

The 38-year-old Texas native is slated to pin on a pair of second lieutenant bars Thursday after graduating from Fort Benning’s Officer Candidate School. But his road to becoming a Soldier started out as a symphony. Literally.

Before signing on the dotted line, Huff conducted orchestral, choral, opera, ballet and new music performances for more than a dozen years. In the United States, he’s led youth, university and professional ensembles in California, Indiana, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Maryland and Virginia. Internationally, he worked with Philharmonic orchestras in France, Russia, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. Most recently, Huff was music director and principal conductor for two civilian outfits, the Astoria Symphony in New York City and Round Rock Symphony in Austin, Texas. In addition, he was a full-time opera producer at the Manhattan School of Music and co-director of the International Conducting Institute.

“My career was going very well in 2009 when I heard the Army was looking for conductors,” he said. “I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to do what I’m very good at, what I love, for the United States of America. I can make music, make the world a better place and serve my country at the same time.’”

At his age, Huff needed a waiver just to sign up. After a screening process that went on for months and a three-day interview and audition in Washington, he was offered the job.

When Huff got to basic combat training earlier this year at Fort Jackson, S.C., he found himself alongside guys half his age. They started calling him “Pops,” “Old Man” and “Uncle Huff” — until the first time the platoon hit the track. The other Soldiers had no idea about his background as a distance runner, cyclist and triathlete.

He said he quickly gained the respect of the cadre and his fellow trainees by performing well in the Army physical fitness test, basic rifle marksmanship (he wound up third in the platoon in both) and every other challenge.

“I was terribly nervous before I arrived,” he recalled. “I knew I’d probably be the oldest soldier in BCT, but I was prepared for it. … Within a week or two, many of the basic trainees looked to me as a father figure.”

Huff came to Fort Benning in early May and joined 3rd Platoon, A Company, 3rd Battalion (OCS), 11th Infantry Regiment.

“OCS was harder because officer candidates are the cream of the crop,” he said. “Everyone who classed up with me has a degree, a 250-plus PT score — there were many 300s — and are high-speed quality people. The age gap is far less prominent. … OCS is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

The transition from symphonies to ACUs hasn’t been too difficult, he said. Huff’s father, Rob, is a decorated Vietnam veteran and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. Silas himself got some military exposure in high school as an Air Force Junior ROTC member.

“I had worn a uniform and marched in formation before. Also, ACUs are far more comfortable than tuxedos,” he said.

Rob Huff said he “almost dropped the phone” last year when Silas told him he was joining the Army. “Eighteen months ago, I’d have never guessed that my son … would ever become a commissioned officer,” he said.

From 1979 to 1983, the elder Huff served as a flight commander at the Air Force Officer Training School on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. He personally commissioned 132 new Air Force lieutenants. None will have more meaning than the oath he administers Thursday for his son, he said.

Rob and his wife, Margana, are flying in from Ruidoso, N.M., for graduation, and he’ll be back in an Air Force uniform for the commissioning ceremony.

“This will truly be a monumental occasion for me,” Rob said. “Stated simply, I could not be any more proud to commission this new officer.”

Huff’s wife, author Taylor Morris, also will attend. She writes contemporary novels for teens and tweens that typically focus on friendship and family.

Morris has published six books. Her first two in the Hello, Gorgeous series — Blowout and Foiled — hit bookstores April 14, while BFF Breakup debuted May 10. They’re available in the Fort Benning PX.

“I wouldn’t miss this, not for anything,” she said of the graduation and commissioning ceremony.

But Morris, who’s lived most of her adult life in Los Angeles and New York City, said she expects a “drastic lifestyle change” in the military. The couple hadn’t owned a car in 10 years but recently bought one. However, they are looking forward to having a larger home than their one-bedroom place in Queens.

“When I met my husband 14 years ago, joining the military was never even on the radar of our lives together. But once the opportunity came up, it just felt right,” she said. “The only thing that will stay the same is that Silas will still be a conductor and I’ll still be a writer, but our community and landscape will change entirely. That’ll be a big adjustment.

“But I’m looking forward to becoming a part of what I can already see is a tight, caring community. I just hope I can keep up with the acronyms. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between TDY and PCS.”

Huff studied classical guitar at Texas State University and earned a Master of Music degree in music theory and composition in 2000 at UCLA. He later attended graduate school at the Trossingen Musikhochschule in Germany.

After Thursday’s graduation, he’ll be off to the Army School of Music for three months in Virginia Beach, Va. He doesn’t have orders yet but said his first assignment will be as executive officer and assistant conductor for one of the Army’s elite special bands.

Huff said the Army is his first priority but he’ll continue conducting occasionally on the civilian scene as a military representative.

“When I start working at my first duty station and have a good sense of my new job in the Army, I will probably take some leave now and again in order to accept some interesting freelance musical opportunities in the civilian world,” he said.

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