Sergeant Ryan Van Gosen

by Sergeant Matthew Kitzen-Abelson, III Marine Expeditionary Force Band
Stripes Okinawa

Camp Foster, Okinawa, Japan - When Sergeant Ryan Van Gosen enlisted in the Marine Corps nearly four years ago, he knew he would be playing the piano as part of a traveling military band, and little else. With only one week separating his audition and enlistment from embarking the bus to Parris Island, then-22-year-old Ryan left behind his life in Virginia Beach, VA to begin a four-year detour that would be the envy of any youthful adventurer.

As a Military Occupation Specialty (MOS) Pianist with the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band (III MEF Band), Sergeant Van Gosen’s talents have been put to use in the unit’s Wind Ensemble, Jazz Combo, and Popular Music Group, which have been featured here on Okinawa, mainland Japan, Guam, and Malaysia. It turned out his recruiter was right, but there would be more to Sergeant Van Gosen’s Marine Corps career than any recruiter could ever promise to an incoming Bandsman. Add co-writing and starring in two III MEF Band Christmas Concert production series that have earned him recognition around Okinawa, achieving proficiency in speaking and reading Japanese, and deploying with 3D Battalion, 12th Marines (3/12) as an interpreter during a recent field exercise in Oita Prefecture to the list, and you have one of the most unorthodox enlistments a Marine Bandsman has likely served. Though, it may be safe to attribute these accomplishments to Sergeant Van Gosen’s iconoclastic and individualistic nature - not in the sense of subverting the Marine Corps’ tradition-based lifestyle, marked, rather, by his desire to push the creative boundaries of what a Marine Bandsman can deliver onstage and his appetite for the thrill of immersing oneself into a foreign culture.

With regard to the III MEF Band’s 2016 and 2017 Christmas shows, Sergeant Van Gosen found himself taking on the personas of the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge, leading him to rewrite timeless Yuletide fables. “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” and “A Christmas Carol” were tailored to include clever quips poking fun at military life. In 2016, as the Grinch, Sergeant Van Gosen was seen gallivanting around the stage, fronting the III MEF Big Band in a rendition of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and in 2017, transforming from the embittered Sergeant Scrooge into an enlightened and spirited incarnation of himself, suddenly capable of singing a Christmas medley with the Popular Music Group. Not only have his performances granted him accolades from military personnel and their families, his performance as the Grinch earned him Lieutenant General Lawrence D. Nicholson’s personal challenge coin, handed to him by Sergeant Major Mario Fields on behalf of the General.

In August 2015, when Sergeant Van Gosen arrived on Okinawa as a Lance Corporal, he quickly developed an interest in the Japanese language out of a simple desire to understand more as a tourist in an unfamiliar, intriguing world. His interest soon became a passionate hobby that inspired him to enroll in college courses through University of Maryland University College’s online program, majoring in Japanese. Two years into his time in Japan, he achieved a working knowledge of Japanese and decided to take the Defense Language Proficiency Test, earning himself a secondary MOS as an Interpreter. Not necessarily expecting a phone call any time soon, Captain Armah Jones, of 12th Marines, identified Sergeant Van Gosen as one of a handful of Marines qualified, and available, to interpret for bilateral engagements with the Japanese military last month. Accepting the opportunity, Sergeant Van Gosen stepped away from the piano and served as a liaison for the command elements of 12th Marines, the Japan Ground Self Defense Forces (JGSDF), and the Kyushu Defense Bureau (KDB) at Hijyudai Training Camp in Oita Prefecture.

Due to legal restraints against the firing of artillery on Okinawa, 3/12 conducts training exercises on various training camps throughout mainland Japan as part of an agreement known as the Artillery Relocation Training Program. For two weeks Sergeant Van Gosen worked alongside interpreters from the JGSDF and KDB, negotiating matters regarding artillery firing times, meals, transportation needs, community relations, and cultural tours during liberty. Commenting that he was “often given loose details about each day’s events,” Sergeant Van Gosen says that it was not unusual to be called upon unexpectedly. He relays an anecdote from the Marines’ cultural tour at a local geothermal power plant during which the tour guide required assistance translating her brief into English. Regardless of any unfamiliarity with geothermal jargon, Sergeant Van Gosen was summoned to translate information dealing with the speeds at which steam travels between the plant’s turbines to generate power. Another event, during the Marines’ visit to an orphanage, afforded Sergeant Van Gosen the opportunity to be a bit more in his element and return to music, this time conducting a chorus of Marines as they sang the “Marines’ Hymn” for children at the orphanage. Sergeant Van Gosen says the real highlight, though, was “getting to fire a howitzer in the middle of a blizzard.”

Lieutenant Robert Price, who is the Chaplain assigned to 3/12, oversees the community relations aspect of the Artillery Relocation Training Program and worked closely with Sergeant Van Gosen during the Marines’ community outreach activities. “As an interpreter, Sergeant Van Gosen proved invaluable during our visits out in town. The more we can do to ingratiate ourselves with the Japanese government and the local community, the better,” says Lieutenant Price.

Reflecting on his deployment, Sergeant Van Gosen muses that “Marines put themselves through a lot to be able to do what they do. It’s true as a musician, an entertainer, and even as an artilleryman; the gumption it takes to do these guys’ jobs is admirable, and they deserve all the credit and respect in the world.” With the adage “Life forms on a path behind you” echoing at the culmination of his experience, Sergeant Van Gosen prepares to reenter civilian life with a sense of confidence in what lies ahead. Now within six months of his End-of-Active-Service date, Sergeant Van Gosen plans to return home to Virginia Beach with his wife Miku and complete university.

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