Monday, September 09, 2013

The Last 24 Notes

Today's reading assignment is from Matt Labash of The Weekly Standard, and his piece on "Bugles Across America," a volunteer organization that performs "Taps" at the funerals of military retirees and honorably-discharged veterans, utilizing a real bugler, and yes, a real bugle. 

The organization is run by Tom Day, a 73-year-old former Marine who decided those who wore the nation's uniform deserved something better than a recording of Taps on a boombox, or the rendering of those mournful notes on "the device," a bugle look-alike that also works electronically.  By his own estimate, Mr. Day has played Taps at more than 5,000 funerals, dating back more than 50 years.  But his mission took on additional urgency with the passing of the Greatest Generation--and a shortage of buglers. 

"..what to some might seem like a nice gesture or a morbid hobby was transformed into high calling in 2000. It was then that federal legislation passed stipulating that every honorably discharged veteran had the right to at least two uniformed military personnel to fold and present the flag, and to sound “Taps” at their funeral. Day thought this was good. The bad news, the fine print added, was that if a bugler could not be found, a recording should be used.

Finding a live bugler proved a mathematical impossibility. With 1,800 vets dying every day (at one point, World War II veterans were dying at the rate of one every two minutes), the military had only 500 buglers to share the load. Day estimates there’s considerably fewer now, with general cutbacks and sequestration. Honor guards were thus initially directed to bring boom boxes to funerals, looking to stealthily place CD players behind tombstones, as they prayed the disc didn’t skip or scratch, that the batteries didn’t fail, or worst of all, that instead of “Taps,” they hit the wrong track and accidentally played “Reveille.” “Sounds funny, but it’s happened,” Day growls.

To add greater insult, the Defense Department then introduced what it calls “ceremonial bugles.” In the venerable Pentagon procurement tradition of the $435 hammer or the $600 toilet seat, the digital bugles cost $530 a throw, and many purists/people-with-taste consider them abominations. Day’s volunteers, when they call them anything printable, tend to refer to these as “fake bugles,” while Day himself just calls it “The Device.” As one Navy musician tells me, “This is it, it’s the last song. Your veteran is dead. And it looks like you’re playing him off with something from Toys’R’Us.”

Bugles Across America, or BAA, became Mr. Day's personal response to the boom boxes and faux horns.  He has organized a network of some 8,000 players across the country, who now cover 35% of funerals for veterans and military retirees.  All are volunteers, who pay their own travel expenses.  Donations cover the organization's modest administrative expenses.

Read the whole thing.  And while you're at it, hit the donation button at the organization's web site and make a contribution.              

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