The Organization That’s Preserving Live Buglers at Military Funerals

Bugles Across America coordinates more than 5,000 volunteers ready to perform “Taps” upon request.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 600,000 U.S. military veterans die every year. And by federal law, nearly all of those veterans are entitled upon request to military funeral honors, which includes the playing of “Taps.”

The law doesn’t specify that “Taps” be played by a live bugler, though, so the funerals tend to use workarounds, such as a portable CD player or faux bugles with a device in the bell of the instrument that plays a digital recording of the song. For Tom Day, such performances are suboptimal and error-prone: He believes there’s no substitute for a real musician at such a solemn event, and he’s built an organization around it.

People want live horn players. It means so much to the family.

Day founded Bugles Across America (BAA) in January 2000, shortly after the Department of Defense established new rules for military funerals. As a bugler himself, he wanted to help close the inevitable gap of live musicians at the ceremonies. Starting with his network of friends and colleagues from his time in a drum and bugle corps, within a few years, he had a network of state coordinators nationwide.

Today, Day says BAA has more than 5,000 volunteer members who perform at approximately 5,200 funerals and military events every year. “People want live horn players,” Day said. “It means so much to the family. A military funeral is one of the most meaningful things for the family that requests it, and you want to make it the most moving thing that you can.”

BAA auditions volunteer buglers through a brief interview and performance, either in person or via a recording. “We’re not necessarily demanding everybody be Carnegie Hall-ready,” says BAA National Coordinator Howard Reitenbaugh. “We’re looking for somebody that is able to sound those 24 notes properly and with a dignity that would be a respectful honor to the veteran.”

According to Reitenbaugh, BAA members will perform at approximately 100 Memorial Day events this weekend. And the holiday is one of the most effective means of outreach for the organization. “I will expect to come home on Monday afternoon, open up my email, and find 300 to 400 emails specifically directed at us for everything from, ‘I just saw you on the news, and I appreciate what you’re doing, thank you,’ to ‘How do I learn to play?’ or ‘I can play “Taps” on the piano, is that accepted?’”

That kind of word of mouth means it’s not a problem that the BAA website is a relatively low-tech affair. Much of its promotion happens offline for people who have limited or no internet access: Its members are given brochure templates that they’re encouraged to personalize and distribute to VFW halls, American Legion posts, retirement homes, and hospices. In each case, BAA encourages families that pursue military funerals to double-check that “live bugler” means what they think it does.

“Don’t just ask if it’s a live bugler,” Reitenbaugh says. “Because all too often the answer is yes, but what they mean is they have a live person standing there pushing the button on a digital bugle.”

(gjohnstonphoto/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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