Ten trumpet students at a Louisiana university are offering to play “Taps” at veterans’ funerals, rather than leave the haunting farewell bugle call to a mechanical device.
"A lot of people get a recording, and play it over a speaker. It means something because it's the song. But when you have an actual person with the horn ... and you hear the horn ring over the fields, it takes the breath out of your chest," Kody Jernigan, a music education major at the University of Louisiana in Monroe, said in a telephone interview.
The senior from Longview, Texas, is a member of Talons for Taps , named because the university’s mascot is the Warhawk — a nod to the World War II-era Curtiss P-40 Warhawk airplane. All are members of the ULM Trumpet Studio: seven trumpet majors and three other students taught by Assistant Professor Eric Siereveld.
Siereveld said "all of them jumped in head-first" when he suggested the volunteer program and explained why he felt it was important.
Service members deserve the honor, he said.
"They've sacrificed too much for us to not have what in the long run is a relatively small acknowledgement of the sacrifice they've given."
The Pentagon has estimated that 10 to 15 percent of military and veterans’ families ask for a funeral with military honors: at minimum, a two-person uniformed honor guard, folding and presentation of the U.S. flag, and a rendition of “Taps.”
But as deaths in Iraq and among military veterans grew and the number of military buglers and trumpeters got smaller, Congress passed a law in 1999 allowing a recording if no brass player was available. In 2003, the Pentagon approved what it calls a ceremonial bugle to replace boom boxes when possible. Anyone can play it, since a chip holding a digital recording of the call is inside a cone-shaped speaker fitted into the instrument's bell.
"The average person may not notice it's not a live bugler. But any musician or anyone who's even been in a band can tell the difference," Siereveld said. To him, he said, it sounds tinny and thin.
There are at least three national groups created to match brass-playing volunteers with veterans’ funerals. Bugles Across America, formed in 2000, has 5,000 members who have played at 125,000 funerals, said founder Tom Day of Berwyn, Illinois. Another is Taps for Veterans, founded by Jari Villanueva of Catonsville, Maryland, who did not immediately respond to an email.
The Youth Trumpet & Taps Corps, enlisting high school musicians, has gone national since Katie Prior of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, started it as her Girl Scout Gold Award project in 2014. It has about 100 members in 30 states, Prior said in an email.
Prior, now studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said the largest, most active groups are in Oklahoma, Texas, Illinois, and Wisconsin, which grant excused absences from school to play “Taps” at veterans’ funerals. West Virginia’s Board of Education also grants such absences.
“Students who are not able to get excused from school play at funerals on weekends and school breaks and spend most of their volunteer hours playing Taps at wreath laying ceremonies and community events honoring veterans,” she wrote.
Siereveld said he started a separate group because "I wanted to create a culture at ULM, a spirit of camaraderie with the community. I think that's an important part of what the university does — give back to the community that provides for us."
Siereveld said he has played “Taps” at about 35 to 40 military funerals over the years.
"Both of my grandfathers served in the military, so I guess it was just impressed on me that that's an important part," he said.
He recalled a great-uncle’s funeral, and his grandfather’s composed stoicism until “Taps” was blown. “It made an impression on me that it’s something that sits with the living,” Siereveld said.
Talons for Taps members have already played at four funerals or memorial services and three Veterans Day ceremonies.
McConnaughey reported from New Orleans.