The Traveling Taps Brigade

Retired Air Force bugler Joe Baldo plays taps for military funerals across the state of Maryland in response to the growing number of cemeteries that have resorted to playing taps from a boom box or mechanical horn. Video by Video: Preston Keres/The Washington PostReporter: William Wan/The Washington PostEditor: Jonathan Forsythe/
By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008

At the age of 71, this is how Joe Baldo spends his days. Retired and in the twilight of his life, he shuttles from cemetery to cemetery across Maryland. And everywhere he goes, he takes three pairs of white gloves, his meticulously pressed Air Force uniform and, in the back seat of his car, his 1933 Bach Stradivarius trumpet.

For 27 years, Baldo devoted his trumpet to his country. Day after day as a master sergeant in the Air Force, he sounded the sorrowful tune of taps at Arlington National Cemetery for soldiers' funerals.

When he retired, he thought he would finally give it all up. But then he heard about the boomboxes.

Cemeteries, struggling to keep up with droves of veterans and soldiers now dying, couldn't find enough trumpet players for the final honors. Some resorted to blasting taps from a boombox or CD player. Others began using "ceremonial bugles" -- horns inserted with digital devices that play taps at the push of a button.

"It's better than nothing, but faking taps just isn't good enough," Baldo said. "We're talking about people who served and sacrificed for our country. They should be buried with dignity and honor."

And so this is how he now spends his days. Each begins with a call to the Maryland National Guard's office to find out where he might be needed. Most burials are more than an hour's drive away from his home in Port Republic, Md. Some funerals take place as far as the Eastern Shore and Quantico. In the past four years, he has logged more than 100,000 miles in his little green Honda.

All that time and distance on the road, to play a tune that lasts 50 seconds.

Veteran Population Aging

The math can be overwhelming at times.

About 1,800 veterans die every day, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. This year alone, the department is expecting more than 657,000 deaths.

"We believe it's peaking," said Jim Rich, spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration. "You have World War II vets now in their 80s and the Korean and Vietnam generation approaching. . . . The military's getting smaller, and the veteran population is getting older."

Add to the situation the dwindling status of the military bugler. During the Civil War, every company had at least two musicians. Buglers regulated the time and duties in military camps and directed the action in battle.

"There used to be an expression: 'Either learn to play the bugle or learn to play the gun,' " said bugler historian Jari A. Villanueva, a retired Air Force master sergeant. "But as World War II went on, it became obvious bugle calls on the battlefield weren't that useful anymore."

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