Teacher called to protect the Capitol holds class from a Humvee
By SYDNEY PAGE | Special To The Washington Post | Published: January 18, 2021
District of Columbia National Guard Sgt. Jacob Kohut was on his only break during a 12-hour shift standing guard outside the U.S. Capitol. In the back of a Humvee, flute in hand, Kohut was teaching students how to play Ludwig van Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" through his laptop.
Kohut, 34, is one of the more than 20,000 National Guard troops providing security as part of a massive operation in D.C. before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.
Since his deployment to Washington on Jan. 13, Kohut has been on double duty, as an active member of the National Guard and a dedicated band teacher at public schools in Fairfax County, Va.
While wearing his uniform, the military musician and teacher spends the first part of his morning conducting virtual band class. Starting at 10 a.m., his 12-hour Guard shift begins, working on the front lines to thwart potential threats after the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
When he was called to D.C. for duty, "my first thought was, 'What about my kids?' " said Kohut, who teaches elementary and middle school students.
Kohut arrives in D.C. first thing in the morning to teach his elementary class remotely from the drill floor of the D.C. Armory, finishing the lesson mere minutes before his Guard shift starts. He later logs in during a break to teach his middle school students from the back of a Humvee.
"The last thing these students need is a disruption in their teaching," Kohut said, explaining that remote learning has been difficult for them. "I would rather teach the class, even if that means I'm very tired."
Kohut has been in the military for 11 years as part of the 257th Army Band — commonly called the Band of the Nation's Capital. He plays the bassoon and the saxophone.
He has been a band teacher for more than a decade, and for the past five years, he has taught music at Canterbury Woods Elementary School in the morning and Frost Middle School in the afternoon.
"I'm a soldier for the Guard, but I feel like I am as much a soldier for music education," Kohut said.
At the beginning of each school year, he explains to his students that he is in the military and could be called away at any time.
Diane Leipzig, the principal of Canterbury Woods Elementary School, told Kohut not to worry when he got the call that he was being deployed. She told him she'd find a substitute teacher to cover his classes while he protects the Capitol, but he insisted on continuing to teach.
Although Leipzig was amazed by Kohut's decision, she said she was not surprised.
"He absolutely loves his students and would do anything for them," she said. "He is extremely dedicated. I think he is an excellent example. He teaches our kids the importance of practice, determination and resilience."
With the support of school staffers, his wife — who has been caring for their 3-year-old son while Kohut is in Washington — and his fellow members of the National Guard, he has managed to continue instructing his band classes.
Ronald Vazquez, 56, a veteran of 27 years and fellow military musician who plays the clarinet and saxophone, coordinates with Kohut to cover for him whenever he takes a break to teach.
"He has my back, and I have his," said Vazquez, calling Kohut his "battle buddy." "Whenever someone in the group has competing priorities, it is natural that we jump in and help out, whatever it is."
Catching glimpses of Kohut teaching music to his students on a daily basis has "given me hope," Vazquez said.
The U.S. Army posted on Facebook that "not only is [Kohut] protecting our nation's capital, but in between shifts he is dedicated to his CWES students, teaching from #Capitol."
Music has always been a driving force in Kohut's life. He was an avid saxophone player in high school, studied music in college and earned his doctorate in music composition at George Mason University.
"What I really wanted was to teach," explained Kohut, who grew up in Saginaw, Mich. "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."
Although teaching music is his primary focus, being part of the 257th Army Band provides Kohut with an outlet to serve and perform.
Fulfilling both roles, he said, is "a really good balance for me."
Kohut's involvement in the military band consists of regular practice sessions, internal performances, public concerts, parades and community outreach.
"We consider ourselves to be ambassadors, all on behalf of peacekeeping missions with music. It's a universal language," he said.
Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, Kohut has been at the helm of managing the 257th Army Band's online presence, honing his video editing skills to produce split-screen ensembles.
But at the core of Kohut's military duties is his vow to provide protection and security whenever he is summoned.
"I have my uniform ready to go," he said. "I'm always honored to put it on."
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, a parent of two students at the elementary school, wrote in an email to Leipzig. "This morning he taught band online from D.C., in his fatigues — which just seems so dedicated and beyond the expectations of a teacher in these circumstances."
The email — which included a photo of Kohut teaching class in his military uniform — prompted Leipzig to publicly recognize his devotion to his students, she said. From the school's Twitter account, she tweeted, "This is what a hero looks like."
Anne Marie Patterson, an orchestra teacher at Frost Middle School, where Kohut also teaches, said he has long been deserving of that title. She called him an "unsung hero."
"He is a guy that always goes the extra mile," she said. "What he has done with his life speaks to who he is. He is so deeply moved by music and wants to share that love with other people, yet he also feels strongly about serving in the Guard."
Kohut's family shared similar sentiments.
"Even though I am older, I find myself looking to him as a guide," said his brother, Alex Kohut, 35. "I'm in awe of him."
The younger Kohut said he is 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 said.
In the long and sometimes stressful hours of standing guard, Kohut said his teaching time offers solace.
As the 11 instruments played by his students synchronize in song, the familiar melody of "Ode to Joy" rings through the Humvee.
In that moment, Kohut realizes there is not a timelier tune to teach his students.
"It's a symbol of unity and peace, and that is what the world needs right now," he said.