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NEWS | Feb. 29, 2024

A chemistry of music and combat: Finnish Reservist and UNIFIL veteran Mark Bertényi

By Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Cameron C. Edy

On Jan. 29, the U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa (NAVEUR-NAVAF) band visited Turku, Finland, to work with Turku Rock Academy students, and perform a joint Turku-Navy concert for Finnish citizens. While guitar duels raged onstage between the NAVEUR-NAVAF rock band and Rock Academy students, one man sat in the back of the venue, monitoring sound levels, managing sets and stages. He had made this concert happen – taught the academy students the nuances of Rock N’ Roll, and welcomed the U.S. Navy musical ensemble with open arms. Mark Albert Bertényi is a reservist for the Finnish Army, a crisis management veteran of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, and is currently the executive producer of the Turku Rock Academy and Rock Academy Finland. Following the concert, he sat with us to discuss his service as an infantry scout and dog trainer, a member of the UN volunteer forces, and his work as a mentor for Turku Rock Academy students. The following is an excerpt of a conversation This story has been edited to improve readability and context.

“In my family, there is a history of service in the military – the second world war touched my family pretty deeply. I was born in Hungary myself – we originally moved to Finland in 1981, and became citizens in ‘85, so it was very natural for me to join the Finnish army. Yeah, I had to cut off my hair, but that was my biggest issue. So I joined when I was 20, went to Sakyla with the legendary Pori Brigade, a Jaeger company that has operated since before Finland’s independence… It was a smooth experience – I had my basic training, military dog training, and then worked as military police in Sakyla until I left as a corporal. So, instead of returning home, I volunteered for the United Nations Peacekeeping service. By then, I had my military training from the Finnish Army, and peacekeeper training after I volunteered in Niinisalo. They sent me to a safety zone between south Lebanon and Israel, between 1993 and 1994. There were constant fights between the Israeli Defense Force and Hezbollah, and my job was to keep the peace where I can. There, I did a lot of bodyguard duties for the company commander – dogs we’re often used as deterrence factors, and I was a dog handler – as well as guard duty and peacekeeping operations. Also, Finnish units were highly requested. We are calm, we’re professional, well trained, reliable and there are no better winter environment fighters. We are a small country, but we are the children of a very strong people, both in body and mind.

We didn’t talk about PTSD at all when I left the UN peacekeepers, back in ’93 and ’94 – we just turned in our gear and went to work, basically. As funny as it sounds, it was the way. Back then, I had so much in me – I understand it better now, but it had effects on me. The things I saw, and understood… what man can do to each other in the name of religion, profits, and country was heartbreaking to say the least. After, I tried to work at shipyards and docks, and tried other things, but I couldn’t do it. I also had a breakup in my relationship, not a nice one, and I had a daughter. I’m now happily married, but it was pretty harsh then. After having all these losses, and this sadness inside of me after seeing what people are able to do to each other, and experiencing it in close range – between two opposing parties and trying to protect the civilians… I decided. I’d sacrificed so much and I gave my part to world peace and protecting the good. So, I swore to never do anything but music…

Growing up, when I would see my dad playing piano and watch everyone gather around to sing, I knew this was something I wanted to do. He was a doctor, but he played the country music beautifully. My mom loved classical music – with them both together, no wonder that the pentatonic scale of rock n’ roll music spoke to me. So when I came back, after the military service and the UN Peacekeeping operations, I played. I try not to say this to this, because performing music is absolutely a real and demanding job, but I always joke that I didn’t want to have a real job ever again. Alongside my best friend, Frank the Funk, I did everything music for 11 years. But then the worst happened - he died.

I didn’t know what to do… I didn’t want to play; I didn’t even want to be on the field anymore. One day, I took my son to this park for kids here in Turku and an old friend suggested I intern at a teaching facility for guitar and singing, a service for kids here. I did that for a bit, until I met Tomi, who had this band competition going on, and asked me if I could come and teach the kids how to do the sound check, and prepare for the show. I was basically stage-managing for the competition, and after the first night, he said to me, ‘It would be so cool if we could add something to this.” We had the competition, somebody wins, and then that’s it. But he had this idea of building something that would last longer, and give more. I loved the idea, of doing good for people with music. I started developing this educational curriculum for bands, for self-taught musicians, and Tomi started developing an organization around it. In about a month after the idea, we started to put it in action. That’s where the Turku Rock Academy began.

I always say that ‘conservative music education, based on sheet music and old fashioned thinking of sheet music, is not the only real music.’ We think that rock, metal, and hip hop is just as real as everything else. There’s always been clinics and classes here to help musicians, but we created an organization and full system that supports bands and self-taught musicians, to real success. There’s a real need to support different musicians, unique artists, and young voices.”

“Music is something that is in our genes, in our DNA. Every time man wanted to talk to god, or gods, he sang and played. He didn’t talk to god, he sang to god. ‘Please god, send us meat, give us the power to conquer a mammoth.’ Somebody was banging on the drum, and the head guy started singing, and everybody is chanting. Whenever we want to talk to something greater than ourselves, we sang and played. Music is something we crave, something natural, as natural as hunting or war. But so much more beautiful. Alongside math, it’s the ultimate language – No matter who I sit down with, I can find something we both can play. I don’t have to speak the language, I can just sit down, grab a tool, and start playing. It’s the ultimate connection, an immediate spiritual connection. Part of why this program works is because it connects all these different kids, these different people, with each other and society, in a spiritual and good way.

Part of that connection is bringing in musicians from places you wouldn’t expect. For a while, we’ve brought in musicians through the U.S. Embassy, to work and play with the kids. I’m also really proud and thankful for the IVLP program (the International Visitor Leadership Program, a U.S. Department of State program). I was chosen, went to the U.S. in May last year, and got to talk about social change through music in the biggest country in the world. So when the embassy asked me if I’d live to have the band (the U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa Band) here, I said ‘hell yeah!’ How could I have answered in any other way.

You see, I understand this band. I’m trained to use a gun, I’m good at it. Unless someone attacks my loved ones or my country, I never want to use a gun again. But, there is a strong connection between people who have been trained to fight. It’s a connection, the same way music is. Now, these are two things that I am good at: I am good at music, and I am good at fighting. I choose music, but for me, it is a fascinating combo. The world we live in, we see war, bloodshed, terror, everywhere in the world, and that is what you automatically link to military training, Navy training. Then there is a special force, that only uses their instruments as weapons, to spread their cause. It’s somehow beautiful for me. Again, to very natural instincts in us: music, and fighting. And these people are trained to use their instruments as their weapons, while representing the U.S. Navy and U.S.A.

As a Finn, when you look around and see everything happening in the world, see Ukraine and other countries, well, we know we want to be closer to the world. We joined NATO because it was necessary – [Finland], like Ukraine now, have fought them before. We are very proud of stopping the Soviet army, stopping us from becoming a part of the Soviet Union. The strong men and women of Finland stopped it. Not many can say that. Now you see Ukraine, and because of that NATO is necessary. We fought that war alone, but we had questionable help from the German army, German guns. Without it, we probably would have been invaded – but that was the only help arms wise. We should never again be in a situation where we are alone, fighting terror and invasion from the east. There are still old men and women that can tell you the stories. They won’t, that is the Finnish way. They did the impossible, and we remember the ones who gave their lives and health for us. From the rubble, they built one of the most democratic and equal countries in the world.”