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The Traveling Taps Brigade
Dismayed by Digital Substitutes, On-Call Buglers Step Up to Fill a Growing Need

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."

Today, there are about 500 active-duty members who can play taps. And by federal law, veterans are allowed at least two honor guards at their funeral and a rendition of taps.

So what to do? Enter the digital bugle.

On the outside, it looks like a traditional horn, all brass and gleaming reflection. But inside the instrument's bell sits a black plastic device with a microchip recording and a booming speaker. When the device was released in 2002, the Defense Department called it a dignified solution to a difficult problem.

Some, however, called it just plain wrong. In recent years, a small army of horn players from across the country have offered to play taps anywhere, anytime, at the drop of a hat.

Many are strictly volunteer. Others have teamed with the military in their area and are paid nominal fees for their work. The largest group, Bugles Across America, claims more than 5,000 volunteers in all 50 states.

"Our goal is to have a live bugler for every family that wants one," said Tom Day of Illinois, who founded the organization. Family and funeral directors can go to the group's Web site and type in a location, and e-mails are blasted out to all volunteer buglers within 100 miles.

The organization has a sizable presence in Maryland and Virginia but only a handful of players in the District, because the city's proximity to many bases already provides a decent supply of official military buglers. "But even here, there's a need," said the group's D.C. coordinator, Jim Miller. There are private cemeteries and small ceremonies that still need players, said Miller, a Navy reservist.

In his home in Centreville, Va., Miller keeps a journal with a line noting every member of the service he has helped bury -- 260 names in all. For him, it began in 1993 after he flew home to help bury his stepfather, who had served in the Army during the 1960s.

"Not a single person was there," he said. "No military. Just me, my mom and my stepdad. It made me angry. I never wanted that to happen to anyone else's family."

Answering the Call

That rarely happens these days in Maryland. In 1998, the state became one of a few to assign military honor duties to its National Guard and fund a program to send such buglers as Baldo to as many burials as possible. Baldo and seven others receive about $15 an hour for their work with the National Guard. After travel expenses, it doesn't amount to much.

"No one does it for the money," Baldo said. "You do it so the families can bury the person with dignity."

Oftentimes, this means trudging through snow or standing at attention through summer heat. For Baldo last week, at Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery in Prince George's County, it meant dots of rain trickling onto his dark blue uniform. As he waited for the first service of the day, he talked about the nervousness that comes with each performance.

"You always want to do your best. You don't want anything to mess it up," he said, looking for his cue from the cemetery director.

He is sometimes plagued by sinus headaches. But that day, it was inflamed tendons in his foot. So when the cue finally came a few minutes later, it was with a slight limp that Baldo walked into the rain and began his sad, familiar melody.

Moments later, he walked off the mound wearing a horror-stricken grimace.

"I goofed. Did you hear the last notes? I had too much air inside and just choked," he said. The family didn't notice, but he apologized anyway and berated himself as he prepared for the next service.

The tune itself isn't technically difficult, he explained, just 24 simple notes. It's the feeling of the player that makes it whole.

Searching for that emotion when he plays, he sometimes thinks of the first time he performed taps -- as a fresh-faced 19-year-old at a ceremony in England for World War II bombers. He remembers how he gazed at the monument to the bombers and the tens of thousands of names carved into white marble. He recalls the humility that washed over him that first time.

He played all day last week at the Cheltenham cemetery. But as the day drew to a close, Baldo was still kicking himself for that morning's mistake.

"Too much air, just choked," he muttered as he packed to leave.

"I guess that's part of it, too," he said. "When you have a live bugler behind the horn instead of some recording, it's not going to be perfect. That's what makes it human, what gives it meaning."

Ducking into his car, he tucked his well-worn trumpet into the back seat and then climbed in, careful to avoid aggravating the inflamed tendons in his left foot.

Ahead lay the hour-long drive home, a night's rest and, after that, another a day of remembrance at the cemeteries, calling out sorrow and helping to lay old souls to rest.

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