Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2014

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Bugles fade, worries sounded

The Memorial Day remembrance ceremony at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City will be at 1 p.m. May 28. At 7:30 a.m. May 26, the placing of American flags on each of the nearly 21,000 graves will begin.

Call 486-5920 if you want to volunteer to help place the flags.

This Memorial Day weekend may be an appropriate time to play taps for the nation's bugle players.

At funeral and memorial services for active-duty military and veterans, the one-minute song is more likely these days to be played from a portable CD player - or a fake bugle that produces the mournful 24-note tribute with a computerized chip and small amplifier installed in the bell of the horn. The honor guard member, with puffed cheeks, merely pretends to blow into the horn.

Whether nostalgia buffs will miss the luster of the brass or think the mechanical devices cheapen the ceremony is a moot issue. The fact is, there are either too few people who know how to play the war relic or not enough who make themselves available to perform at the funerals for the hundreds of veterans who die daily.

Even at such events as the Memorial Day ceremony at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City, taps will emanate from either a CD or a digital bugle.

At one time, cemetery Director Jack Porrino worried about reaction to the use of digitized taps during a solemn event.

"When the digital bugle came out a few years ago I didn't know how dignified it would be," Porrino said. "But families told me they didn't mind its use and, quite frankly, most people can't tell whether it's real or not."

Porrino said the cemetery's digital bugle, which retails for about $500, was purchased with money donated by supporters specifically for the device.

Porrino said families may hire their own bugler, but he reckons that fewer than 4 percent of the 1,700 burials a year at that site feature a real bugler or trumpet player. (The bugle resembles a trumpet without the valve stems.)

The use of digital bugles and tape recorders as alternatives to the real bugle is the norm across the country. National cemeteries in Los Angeles and Riverside, Calif., and Phoenix allow all three.

(Los Angeles National Cemetery, however, requires that recorders be hidden.)

Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., permits taps to be played only on a real bugle.

The loss of genuine bugle players may not be widely mourned.

"Bagpipers are in vogue now," said Thom Pastor, secretary-treasurer of the Las Vegas Musicians Union Local 369. "When bagpipers play 'Amazing Grace' it lasts for minutes, while taps is over in a minute. The customer gets more bang for his buck with a piper."

Pastor can't recall the last time someone called the union hall to hire a bugler - in which case he would have provided the names of trumpet players who may be cross-trained.

The Defense Department counts about 500 buglers among the services - not enough to accommodate the nearly 2,000 military members and veterans who die each day.

One nationally recognized bugle expert, however, says that if you make an effort to find a person - military or not - who can play taps on a bugle, trumpet or coronet, you will find one.

"There is not a shortage of people to sound taps. That is one of those myths that goes around the Internet," said Air Force Master Sgt. and bugler Jari A. Villanueva.

Villanueva, who will be inducted into the Buglers Hall of Fame in June in Bridgeport, Conn., says the problem is "a lack of a good system to get those who want to perform taps lined up with those who are running funerals."

Villanueva, who is to perform in the Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C., and play taps at Arlington for the World War II Flying Tigers ceremony, says a recording or use of a digital bugle was intended as a last resort when a bugler is not available.

"What's happening is that people are not being honored properly," he said. "It's very disturbing to see a digital bugle at active-duty funerals, especially for those killed in Iraq."

Others worry that without digital bugles or recordings, the military would be hard-pressed to meet its promise - and mandate - to provide to those who were honorably discharged a funeral with full military honors, which includes a U.S. flag presentation and the playing of taps.

Among the members of the Nellis Air Force Base Honor Guard, which provides such honors at an average of 93 funerals a month, not one plays a real bugle. The unit has five digital bugles and members take turns as bugler.

"Use of the digital bugle provides uniformity - no messing up, perfect every time," said Master Sgt. Mark Thompson, who has been in charge of the 35-member unit for three years.

Still, he would chance it with a real bugle player if he could find one.

"Over the years, I've found three people who could actually play a bugle," said Thompson, 39, who has served 21 years in the Air Force.

Senior Airman April Miclat, 23, said she feels comfortable pressing the digital bugle to her lips and pretending to play because "we are saying goodbye and showing respect" to veterans.

Staff Sgt. Jason Poynor, 25, said he prefers the electronic bugle to a tape recorder or CD player.

"I think the family (of the deceased) likes seeing the bugler there for image purposes," Poynor said. "It's symbolic to them."

But purists, like ex-military bugler and longtime Strip musician Dick Geuder, say a fake horn can diminish the honor.

"I just hate it," said Geuder, who earned his Boy Scout bugle badge when he was 13 and has played the trumpet and flugelhorn in Strip orchestras since 1957. "It just is not the same. You don't get the true sound."

Geuder, 76, said he occasionally gets calls from the families of deceased friends who ask him to play taps. The going rate: about $50.

Playing taps dates to the Civil War.

Taps was written in 1862 by Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield and his brigade bugler, Oliver Willcox Norton. Taps was first sounded in July 1862 and quickly spread to other Union army units and even to the Confederates, according to Villanueva, who operates the Web site tapsburgler.com.

Taps was made an official bugle call after the war, he said.

By the close of the 19th century, it was being played at veterans' funerals nationwide and in the early 1930s, Gen. Douglas MacArthur signed orders for honor guards and buglers to participate in veterans' funerals whenever possible.

The age of the company bugler died out by the end of the Korean War, Villanueva said, noting that buglers today are drawn from the ranks of bandsmen.

After news reports surfaced in the 1990s that many dead veterans were not receiving the full military honors they requested, Congress mandated that the military must provide the honors for eligible veterans on their families' requests.

The law requires an honor guard of at least two members of the armed forces, the folding and presentation of the American flag to relatives and the playing of taps - either by a bugler or an electronic recording.

Trumpeter Geuder says he would consider haunting a person who dares to play taps on a digital bugle at his funeral.

"If you want to honor me, do it with the real sound," he said.

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