Playing of taps at military funerals fading
SOUTHAVEN, Miss. — Every morning before work, and before sunrise, David Dodson sits in his car, garage door closed, and practices playing his trumpet for 30 minutes.
He always finishes with taps — a chilling, 24-note salute that is traditionally played by a lone bugler or trumpeter at funerals of U.S. military veterans.
It is the only song the 49-year-old Dodson can play, and it is the only song he cares about playing.
Six months ago, he began learning the trumpet when he discovered that veterans and their families were no longer guaranteed a live version of taps.
Often a recording is used, instead. And sometimes a person pretends to play taps as the electronic version is heard.
"I just found that unacceptable," said Dodson, a Southaven resident who enlisted in the Air Force in 1988 and served 6½ years. He spent his military time stateside, helping maintain nuclear missiles aimed at possible threats to our country.
"The playing of taps is usually going to be one of the last things that a family hears at their loved one's funeral," he said. "Anybody will tell you that it sounds better when played live. I think every veteran, decorated or not, deserves that show of respect."
In February, on Super Bowl Sunday, Dodson passed his taps audition over the phone and became a member of Bugles Across America, a nonprofit founded in 2000 by Marine veteran Tom Day.
Day's action was a result of legislation passed by Congress stating that a veteran has the right to at least two uniformed military members to fold the flag and play a recording of taps.
"Mr. Day calls the recording 'stolen dignity' — even if it works properly, and that is not always the case," Dodson said.
Bugles Across America has more than 4,000 volunteers who play "taps for free at veterans' services in all 50 states." That may sound like a lot, but more than a million veterans are expected to die this year.
Mississippi has 20 buglers. It is the home of 220,389 veterans; 40,461 are ages 75 and older. That is more than 2,000 veterans per bugler in that age bracket alone. Obviously, more volunteers are needed.
"I'm trying to get word out the best I can," Dodson said. "But I'm not a music person. I don't know a lot of musicians. I have no way of identifying those who can play a bugle, a trumpet or a flugelhorn. I'm just a guy who picked up a trumpet last year, wanting to be part of the solution."
One of Dodson's neighbors, a World War II and Korean War veteran, died about a year ago.
"After I heard they wanted a military funeral, I helped the family put it together," Dodson said. "When I heard they weren't going to have a bugler, I called Bugles Across America and was able to get a live version. I saw how impactful it was."
He received a letter from the family, thanking him for helping arrange it.
"It just got me to thinking that surely I could learn how to play the trumpet well enough to play taps," he said.
He practiced on his own and also received tips from three experienced trumpeters. One of them was 61-year-old Bob Putman of Hernando, who joined Bugles Across America two years ago. Putman grew up in Houston, Texas, and played trumpet in his middle school and high school bands.
"I really have a lot of admiration for David," Putman said. "I let him borrow an instructional book. He came over to the house a couple of times. He would send me recordings, and I would send him suggestions.
"To pass the audition as quickly as he did and never having played before, that took a lot of dedication."
Already, Dodson has played at two services.
"Both of them were inside," he said. "There is a lot of pressure involved. I know there is no do-over. It's a one-time thing for that veteran and the family. I didn't sleep a whole lot the two nights leading up to it."
He drove six hours round-trip to the Delta town of Sunflower. When the color guard members removed the flag from the casket and stretched it out, they stood at attention, which was Dodson's cue.
From a spot just outside the church's front doors, Dodson slightly angled the trumpet so it wouldn't be deafening to those inside.
"I did OK," he said.
The second one, in the middle of March, was much more difficult.
"The first one, we were at the first part of the service," he says. "But at the second one we were at the end. I heard people talk about this man, a Vietnam veteran, Purple Heart recipient. I found myself getting emotionally involved, and I don't think I did as well."
Putman prefers to play at graveside, where he can detach himself from the ceremony.
"I'm typically at the cemetery before anybody else gets there," he said. "I stand away from those who gather. When it comes time to play, I close my eyes and concentrate on nothing but the music.
"I'm honored to do it. But I play, and then I leave. I don't wait around for feedback because it's not about me. I'm there out of respect for the veteran."
But Putman can't always avoid attention. He recently played for a 38-year-old retired Marine captain, who died of cancer. He was married with seven children. Putman saw the family every week at church.
"That Sunday after the funeral, people were coming up and saying how nice it was and how much everybody appreciated it," Putman said. "All I could think about was his family and how young he was."
Tony Taylor, 56, of Madison appreciates the efforts of people like Dodson and Putman. Taylor was a Marine staff sergeant who served six years, including stints in Lebanon, during the 1980s.
"A recording at a veteran's funeral? I just find that so insulting," says Taylor, a third-generation Marine. "It's like putting them aside. You would think all the money this country spends on frivolous things, we could assign buglers to play for them.
"But I can see how someone who never served would say, 'just send a recording.' Because they don't understand what taps means to those of us who have served. I actually spent time on a burial detail and did seven services. When they played taps ... well, that's one of the few times a Marine is allowed to cry. It's hard to explain all the emotions that go through you when it's played."
Putman said he could play at a funeral "almost every day." The demand is that enormous.
"I struggle with saying I can't do it," he said, "but I have a job. I can't take off all the time."
A vice president for a manufacturing company in Hernando and Tunica, Putman says he will play at a service "if it involves one of my church members, if it's on a weekend or if I happen to be off that day.
"We simply need more people who can help take care of all the requests."
Putman, who is not a veteran, joined Bugles Across America after watching a couple of YouTube clips about recordings being played at military funerals.
"It disgusted me," he said. "The recording sounds so puny."
Volunteers consist of men and women, boys and girls. Candidates need to pass an audition with Reagan Moon, acting state director of Mississippi and director of Louisiana. Moon lives in Bossier City, Louisiana. The audition can be done in person, via Skype, a phone call or an audio tape.
Volunteers provide their own instruments and transportation. They are required to maintain "high moral and ethical standards," according to the organization's website, www.buglesacrossamerica.org.
"No, you don't get paid for this — at least not in money," Dodson said. "Just knowing that you did something important for someone who served our country and gave that family something they will remember the rest of their lives . that's worth more than money to me."
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