Fighting for Country and Beethoven
During a stressful time, a National Guardsman still finds a way to lead his class
Sgt. Jacob Kohut finally had some downtime during his 12-hour shift standing guard outside the U.S. Capitol. He could have spent his lone break napping or cracking jokes with fellow National Guardsmen. Instead, he sat in the back of a Humvee, flute in hand, teaching students via his laptop how to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
Kohut, 35, was one of the more than 20,000 troops providing security ahead of then President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration in January. That meant he was on double duty, as an active member of the National Guard and as a dedicated school band teacher.
“I’m a soldier for the Guard, but I’m as much a soldier for music education,” he says.
Kohut has been in the military for 11 years as part of the 257th Army Band, playing the bassoon and saxophone. He also has been a band teacher for more than a decade, and for the past five years, he’s taught music at two Fairfax County, Virginia, schools—canterbury Woods Elementary School in the morning and Frost Middle School in the afternoon.
When he was called up for duty, “my first thought was, What about
my kids?” says Kohut. “The last thing these students need is a disruption in their teaching. I would rather teach the class, even if that means I’m tired.”
When on duty, Kohut’s days began in the morning with teaching his elementary class remotely from the drill floor of the DC Armory, finishing the lesson mere minutes before his Guard shift started at 10 a.m. Later in the day, during his break, he would go online to teach his middle school students from the back of a Humvee.
“I’M A SOLDIER FOR THE GUARD, BUT I’M AS MUCH A SOLDIER FOR MUSIC EDUCATION.”
Diane Leipzig, the principal of Canterbury Woods Elementary, assured Kohut she would find a substitute teacher to cover his classes while he protected the Capitol, but he insisted on continuing to teach. Leipzig wasn’t surprised. “He would do anything for his students,” she says. “He’s an excellent example. He teaches our kids the importance of practice, determination, and resilience.”
Music has always been a driving force in Kohut’s life. He was an avid saxophone player throughout high school, studied music in college, and ultimately earned his doctorate in music composition at George Mason University.
“What I really wanted was to teach,” says Kohut, who is married and has a three-year-old son. “My mom, who is a single mother, was a music teacher. That’s why I do what I do, because she was such a good role model.”
Kohut’s double duty has caught the attention of parents at Canterbury Woods Elementary.
“I just wanted to share how impressed I am with Dr. Kohut this week,” Susi Brittain wrote in an e-mail to Leipzig. “This morning he taught band online from DC, in his fatigues—which just seems so beyond the expectations of a teacher in these circumstances.”
Kohut insists he is not doing anything extraordinary—he’s simply taking care of what needs to get done. “We are here to do what’s needed, and if that means standing outside for 18 hours straight in the freezing cold, we’re ready to do that,” he says.
But amid the long and sometimes stressful hours of standing guard, Kohut said his teaching time offers solace.
As the 11 instruments played by his virtual students synchronized in song, the familiar melody of “Ode to Joy” rang through the Humvee. In that moment, Kohut realized there wasn’t a timelier tune to teach his students.
“It’s a symbol of unity and peace,” he says. “And that’s what the world needs right now.”