- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

For nearly two decades, Air Force Master Sgt. Jari Villanueva has used the sound of taps to help the grieving find closure in the deaths of their loved ones.

“Sounding taps at a funeral is one of the hardest emotional things a bugler can do,” Sgt. Villanueva said. “A lot of times, buglers will stand far enough away so that they don’t become emotionally attached to every funeral that they go to. After all, everyone is human.”

Sgt. Villanueva, 48, is one of the many, yet dwindling number of buglers who play taps at military funerals. More buglers today must volunteer to play the 24-note melody at the funerals because there are more veterans dying than there are buglers to play.

Last year, an average of 1,794 military veterans died each day. Of those deaths, 1,098 were World War II veterans, said Jo Schuda, a spokeswoman for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

About 450,000 active-duty troops and military reservists participate in military funerals each year, according to the Department of Defense. Still, there are not enough buglers to play at all the funerals.

In 1999, Congress passed a law requiring basic memorial funeral services for all veterans. It requires, among other things, the military to play a recording of taps at the funeral if a bugler is not available.

As a result, organizations such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and state National Guard units often provide buglers. Many volunteer groups have formed, and some are known to invite high school musicians to play taps.

“Taps is one of those traditions that is slowly disappearing,” Sgt. Villanueva said. “And it’s sad.”

Sgt. Villanueva said taps was initially used as a call to bring everything to a close at the end of the day.

“It was a call that signified that everything was safe and secure for the night, so you could go to sleep knowing that everything is OK,” he said. “The sounding that taps brings to a funeral does the same thing, in that it brings closure to that person’s life.”

Sgt. Villanueva helped bring closure to his father’s life when he played taps at his funeral in Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Maryland in October 2002. He credits his interest in music, specifically playing the bugle, to his childhood visits to Arlington National Cemetery and watching funeral processions on television.

“I remember as a kid when my father brought me to the [John F.] Kennedy grave site,” he said. “We happened to be there the day the king of Jordan came to lay a wreath on President Kennedy’s grave and we got a chance to see the guards and hear buglers sound taps.”

He also recalled watching the burial of the Apollo 1 astronauts, two of whom were laid to rest at Arlington.

“It reminded me of watching the Kennedy funeral on television with the riderless horse, with the pomp and the pageantry of the proceedings, and I thought to myself how wonderful that is, and what a great tradition,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine that 20 years later I would be a part of it.”

Sgt. Villanueva’s parents met while his father, a merchant marine, was delivering supplies to the Allies in Finland during World War II. His parents married in 1949, and he was born in Karhula, Finland, on Aug. 14, 1955. Nine months later, his parents moved to New York.

However, his family didn’t stay in New York long. In 1957, his family moved to Patterson Park in Baltimore before settling down in a housing development in Park Side, where Sgt. Villanueva later began honing his skills as a bugler.

“When I was 11 years old, I was the troop bugler for the Boy Scouts,” he said. “I remember ending every troop meeting we had to the sound of taps. I thought it was part of the Boy Scout tradition to wake up before everybody and play … music to wake people up to and then put them to sleep with taps. It was such a thrill doing that.”

Music has always played a big part in Sgt. Villanueva’s life. After graduating from Patterson High School in Baltimore in June 1973, he attended the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University School of Music. He was 22 when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education in June 1978.

For the next five years, Sgt. Villanueva taught music at two colleges, two elementary schools and one high school in the Baltimore area. In 1983, he earned a master’s degree in music.

Sgt. Villanueva joined the Air Force in 1985 when he was 29.

During his first 17 years in the Air Force, Sgt. Villanueva served as a ceremonial trumpet player in the ceremonial brass. He also was the chief music arranger and assistant drum major.

About two years ago, Sgt. Villanueva transferred to the music production section of the Air Force Band. He is responsible for the music the performers see on their music stand.

“Coming to Arlington National Cemetery and getting to watch the buglers at the Tomb of The Unknowns and hear them sound taps and see what they do was quite an inspiration to do it right, as it were,” he said.

Arlo Wagner contributed to this report.

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