Written by retired U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Richard Stoud.
Thanksgiving is a time when Americans pause with family to celebrate our blessings throughout the year with family and friends. Many go to church to pray and give thanks to God for all the good things that have happened to them. Many people travel to be with family – parents, children and grandchildren. Holidays bring us together.
The death of a family member also brings us together as we gather to lay a loved one to rest according to the traditions and rituals of our cultural backgrounds and religious affiliations. Since 2000, all honorably discharged members of the U.S. military are eligible for military honors at a funeral or memorial service. These honors, in their most basic form, consist of a flag folding and presentation as well as the playing of the bugle call Taps.
The bugle call Taps was composed by U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield in 1862. Butterfield, who could not read or write music, still was a composer of many bugle calls. Bugles served as the command, control and communications systems of the day. Butterfield was not happy with the bugle call for lights out and wanted something more melodious and less formal. He took an existing call, Scott Tattoo, slowed it down and changed the rhythm. Calling his bugler, Private Oliver Wilcox Norton, he had Norton try the notes on his bugle, adjusting them until it seemed right. Norton sounded the new composition at lights out that night. The next day, other buglers came to Norton to ask about the tune and it spread by common use. Later in the war, Taps would be played at burials to preclude the three volleys of rifle fire if it was thought the sound of the gunshots might be mistaken for enemy fire. Taps eventually became an official bugle call of the Army.
There are currently fewer than 500 trumpeters in the entire U.S. military, making it impossible for the military to provide live musicians to play Taps at every veteran’s funeral. The military solved this problem with technology – digitally-recorded Taps could be played during honors. In 2000, a Marine, Tom Day, decided digital Taps was unacceptable. A recording cannot match the emotion, the sight and sound a musician will provide by playing live Taps. He declared it the equivalent of “stolen honor.” To address this, Tom Day created a volunteer organization called Bugles Across America. The members of this group, over 7,000 strong, sound Taps at funerals, memorial ceremonies, grave markings and veterans ceremonies across the country. In 2012, a retired Washington, D.C., Air Force trumpeter, Jari Villanueva, founded a group called Taps for Veterans to provide a similar corps of volunteers to sound live Taps during honors. Villanueva famously sounded TAPS at Arlington National Cemetery for 23 years.
Villanueva, recently organized a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate 50 years since Army bugler Sgt. Keith Clark sounded Taps for President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 25 1963. On Nov. 16, 2013, 100 buglers, members of the volunteer organizations mentioned above, got the chance to assemble at the old rotunda at Arlington, to sound a mass Taps under the baton of Col. Michael J. Colburn, USMC, director of the Marine Corp Band. Clark’s family was present, to hear and see the honors given to their late husband and father. After the ceremony at the rotunda, the buglers scattered to predetermined positions around the cemetery. At noon, Taps could be heard from every corner of the cemetery for about 15 minutes.
I started playing my trumpet again in 2002, while stationed at the Training Center Yorktown Performance Technology Center and started playing in the Training Center Yorktown band. I joined Bugles Across America shortly after I retired from active duty in 2007 and have sounded Taps for many veterans since then. For me, it is a chance to wear my uniform and serve my fellow veterans and their families. All fellow veterans, no matter the uniform they wore, are my Shipmates!
I was one of the buglers who attended the ceremony at Arlington on Nov. 16. I sounded Taps at the Coast Guard memorial and the USS Serpens monument. For you see, I remember watching President Kennedy’s funeral on TV. It was the first time I had ever heard Taps. My parents, my brother and I visited the President’s grave in April 1964 to pay our respects. And, we visited the Iwo Jima memorial. 50 years later, I sounded Taps on the same step in my Coast Guard uniform. What an honor!
Any Coast Guard unit, family member, funeral director, religious minister, priest or rabbi can log on to the website of either organization and fill out the request form “Find a bugler.” E-mail will be sent out to every member of either organization within a hundred miles of the request and we will do our best to respond. The bugler may be a civilian, a member of the military or a veteran him/herself. They may come in a suit, a Bugles Across America uniform or a military uniform. They will have already passed an audition to become a member in good standing.
No Shipmate of ours should ever have to be buried with digital Taps when so many volunteers stand ready to serve.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.