The buglers: Taps powered by heart, not by batteries

ANNVILLE, Pa. (WHTM) – How do we honor the men and women of our military, who recorded years — even decades — of service? More and more, the sounds you hear at armed forces funerals have been recorded.

On a recent rainy Saturday, a group of musicians gathered in the administration building at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery in Annville, part of the nationwide tradition of Echo Taps.

The trumpet, cornet, and bugle players filled a room with the hodgepodge of warm-ups.

Without order, they’re just notes.

vlcsnap-2016-05-26-11h17m43s251An organizer greeted each player as he or she arrived, assigning positions around the cemetery’s main road. In the right order, 19 buglers prepared to echo 24 notes for the 47,000 men and women there who can no longer take a breath.

In the right order, we all know the tune, the tone those 24 notes take on. “Grief, honor, respect,” Howard Reitenbaugh said. You don’t need to hear all 24 to know it, to feel it.

Just the first three are enough to recognize Taps.

“You want to do it the best you can do it every time,” said Roger Meyer, a bugler who came to the Midstate from Oklahoma for the event.

A spectator might think buglers are easy to find at services at the military cemetery. Take note: They’re not.

But you will find Constance Snavely.

“Everybody, I would think, has some kind of calling, feeling of something that they need to do,” she said. “This is what I do.”

We spoke with Constance at her Lebanon home a few weeks before the event at Indiantown Gap. She retired from the Army in 2004 after nearly 23 years of service, ending her career as a Chief Warrant Officer 4.

She found a new mission as a member of the Lebanon VFW Post 23 honor guard.

“It just felt right to me,” she said. “It’s something I needed to do.”

vlcsnap-2016-05-26-11h17m59s152When the VFW lost one of their two buglers to sound Taps at military services, Constance became the backup to longtime member Gerald Zechman. “And then when he’s gone, we had nobody and we’d have to use the ceremonial bugle.”

That’s the fake bugle, in Howard Reitenbaugh’s words.

“Many of these honor guards will say we have a live bugler,” he said. “That means a live person standing there holding a digital horn.”

As head of the Pennsylvania chapter of Bugles Across America, Reitenbaugh works to bring analog back by sending horn players to services at a family’s request.

“They deserve Taps powered by heart,” he said, “not by batteries.”

vlcsnap-2016-05-26-11h32m07s196A nine-volt powers the ceremonial bugle Constance showed us. The horn looks the same as other bugles, but a speaker sits in the bell, pre-loaded with various military bugle calls including Taps.

“You hit play, and that gives six seconds to bring it up to act,” she explained.

“To me, it’s just like fake, you know,” said Donald Stoudt, Sr., another member of the honor guard. “You’re just faking it.”

A few years ago, a Department of Defense directive clarified how veterans should be honored at services. In addition to requiring uniformed military members to fold and present the American flag to the next of kin, the directive provides guidance on the sounding of Taps.

“The Military Service responsible for providing military funeral honors shall ensure that there is an active search for a bugler,” the directive states. “If none is available, the Service representative may authorize the playing of a high quality recording of Taps on a stereo player or ceremonial bugle and shall ensure that it is available.”

“But sometimes that means, ‘Oh,'” Reitenbaugh said, looking around, “‘I don’t see one, so we’ll use the digital.'”

“It’s better than nothing,” Roger Meyer, the bugler from Oklahoma, said of the ceremonial horn. “My son didn’t even have the ceremonial bugle. He had a boombox.”

The ceremonial horn has become an increasingly common way honor guards sound Taps. Three groups volunteer for services at Indiantown Gap; two of them use recordings for as many as 12 funerals — 288 notes — a day.

The recordings, while a perfect sounding of Taps, are not always reliable.

“Sometimes they’ll hit the button, it’ll start playing Taps, battery will die,” said Randy Plummer, program support assistant at Indiantown Gap. The funeral shelter at the cemetery even has a backup audio system installed in case the ceremonial bugle fails.

“One time I was using our ceremonial bugle,” Constance said, “hit the button, played about three notes and died. And I’m standing there, ‘Okay, this is just not right. I think I need to learn how to play the bugle.'”

That’s when the violinist bought her first horn.

Since 2006 the one-hit wonder has sounded 24 notes more than 700 times.

“It might not be perfect like the recording,” she said, “but it’ll be complete and sounded by a veteran who knows the purpose and the meaning behind it.”

“My way of thinking about it is those 24 notes, I’m playing a prayer,” Reitenbaugh said. That’s part of his ceremony; he doesn’t want to lose it to the ceremonial horn.

“They provided real sacrifice,” he said. “They deserve a real honoring of that service.”

Reitenbaugh is always asking for more to join his ranks of 260-some players he can call on in Pennsylvania and more than 5,500 nationwide and internationally.

“Military, civilian, male, female, and any age,” he said.

And he means that. One of the 19 buglers at the Echo Taps event, held on Armed Forces Day, was in her teens. Bugles Across America has Pennsylvania members as young as 9.

“My parents were both in the military and my whole family has been, so it’s been a huge part of my family,” Maggie Killmeyer, 14, who wants to join the armed forces herself one day, said.

“There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for a veteran,” said Marine vet and bugler Gloria Krug, in her 80s. “And if it means coming here, I come here.”

One by one, each bugler echoed the call, 24 notes, all around the cemetery, for 47,000 honorees.

“It signifies this is the end of their duty, go in peace and rest,” Constance said. “When you think that worldwide, at 11 o’clock, this is going on in every national cemetery.”

“The folks that are here, that won’t be leaving here today, were the ones that were honored,” Reitenbaugh said, his voice catching slightly. “And that’s our purpose, to honor them.”

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