OPERAtion Harmonic Forces is seeking to expand along the East Coast after a third successful performance at the Brooklyn VA hospital in Bay Ridge, pioneered by Flatbush native and Air Force veteran Sergeant Daniel McCaughan.
Running on time and resources provided by dedicated volunteers, the team is the first of its kind to bring communities and veterans together to listen to musicians renowned around the world. In the last three months, these free concerts have featured the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera and were dedicated to the residents and outpatients in honor of their service to the nation.
“There was no formula. Nobody ever did what we did. How do you get the most prestigious musicians to stand in a hospital lobby? You ask,” said McCaughan, laughing into the phone when asked what it took to pull the initial performance back in October, 2015.
The two men that pulled the whole operation together initially met after McCaughan and two of his six sons returned from a trip to Mount Rainier National Park, where they waited out a blizzard with nothing but minimal gear and an overnight shelter.
Wedged into a crevice in the mountain formed by a glacier, McCaughan said though he knew his sons Danny and Ryan “were well-suited for the physical challenges of the trek, I could not help but feel paternal concern for their safety.”
Planning to evacuate, McCaughan turned to a hand-cranked radio, eventually picking up a transmission of the Saturday matinee broadcast of “La Traviata,” conducted by Fabio Luisi. “At that moment,” he recalled, “I made two solemn vows to myself: that we would safely get down that mountain, and that I would someday attend an opera at the Met.”
He accomplished both, and more. He got to know the Metropolitan Opera’s principal timpanist Jason Haaheim, who joined with him in developing the project. For the initial concert in downtown Manhattan, Haaheim and McCaughan loaded the instruments into the van Haaheim rented and paid for almost all the expenses out of their pockets.
Two years later, McCaughan put together a concert at the VA Hospital in Manhattan in April, just before a performance in the Bay Ridge VA Hospital this past May. “I’m fortunate. I get to leave,” he said, stressing that veterans who reside in the hospitals, “will never hear that unless we bring it to them.”
But, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. A union representing the musicians asked for over $10,000 from McCaughan that year, for union participation and wages for the musicians, even though those who were participating had all agreed to volunteer. “For what?” said McCaughan, “I don’t ask anyone to pay my wages! We want your time; that’s the most valuable commodity.”
Despite this obstacle, McCaughan has since begun working to spread the program to VA hospitals in cities along the East Coast that have a major orchestra. The point, he said, is to “make people aware of how close they are to veterans” and truly bridge that awareness between communities.
To make that happen, the organization is hoping that more people will pitch in time and money. Often still short on volunteers to help set up and coordinate space. McCaughan urges those interested to submit a short letter on the OPERAtion Harmonic Forces website, so that the group can contact them when it is in the area.
“As a veteran, I live my military experience every morning. I wake up in the desert every morning,” said McCaughan. “This keeps me working with veterans, and you have to find some way to cope. If I wanted applause, I would’ve joined the circus, but I wanted to serve my country.”
That’s something that McCaughan has done for decades. He served in Turkey in the early ’80s, and at one point was based in Geneva. He also volunteered for the Concerned Veterans for America organization, and volunteered at Widener Law School to fulfill the 17-word promise of former President Abraham Lincoln, which McCaughan said was, “‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.’”
And now? McCaughan said he will be working with one of the eight orchestras whose administrations are already set up in a way that would ease the process, and OPERAtion Harmonic Forces will be on its way to Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania to organize other performances.