- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 29, 2002

The 24 musical notes are among the most spare and eloquent in the world: Few do not respond to taps, the simple bugle call that signals the final farewell at a military funeral.

The call has gotten a high-tech boost.

The Department of Defense announced Friday that the battery-operated, "digital" bugle has come of age and is a necessity with only about 500 U.S. military buglers available to perform at the 1,800 daily funerals for veterans, most of whom served in WW II.

"It precludes us from having a live bugler at every service," said Mark Ward, a Defense Department policy adviser on casualty and mortuary funeral honors.

The "digital" bugle is actually a real bugle with a miniature device placed inside that plays an electronic rendition of taps, which was composed on the back of an envelope by Union General Daniel Adams Butterfield to honor his 600 troops who died in a battle in July of 1862.

The Defense Department has sent 50 of the devices on a trial basis to veterans' groups and military units in Missouri. It is better, the department reasons, than audio cassettes and a boombox.

After a National Defense Authorization Act authorized the playing of taps at military honors funeral ceremonies three years ago, the Defense Department was not able to meet the demand for live buglers. By 2000 Congress passed a law authorizing use of recorded versions of the call, recorded on Memorial Day 1999 at Arlington National Cemetery.

But audio cassettes deteriorate, CDs skip and boomboxes fail.

"A recorded version of taps, no matter how good the quality, did not give our family members the visual image of a live bugler," Mr. Ward said. It prompted a little research and development on the matter.

The new cone-shaped device, which is waterproof and has its own volume control, was born.

"This is a real bugle," Mr. Ward said, adding, "Absent a live bugler, our ceremonial bugle is an alternative to the boombox."

One group disagrees.

"This is worse than a boombox," said Tom Day, founder of Bugles Across America, an Illinois-based group that recruits and trains buglers specifically to play taps at military funerals.

"I know what their thought was. They want that visual effect, and that's fine. But this may not sound better, and that person will have to fake it just right. And if the device falls out of the bugle, I can't even describe the embarrassment there would be," Mr. Day said.

The group was founded 17 months ago and has 1,262 buglers in 50 states. They have played at 4,000 funerals, including "one in the Washington area for a sniper victim," Mr. Day said.

"Why didn't DOD come to us?" he asked. His message to his membership was a little stronger, however.

"This is like the $500 hammers they order. What in God's name are they thinking? There are a ton of reasons why this is stupid," he wrote at the group's Web site (www.buglesacrossamerica.org).

Meanwhile, the new faux bugle has the blessings of two of the nation's primary veterans groups.

"We like it very much," said Bob Manhan, spokesman for the Missouri-based Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"This will add more dignity to the burial service. The survivors can physically see a bugler playing a nice rendition of taps. Nothing is ever going to be perfect, but this is nearly a fail-safe method," he said.

Mike Duggan of the American Legion agreed.

"We're excited about this, and we think it will have a good visual effect. This isn't meant to fool anybody," he said. "The idea is not to replace a live bugler but offer an alternative that is close to the real thing."

The group, which represents 14,000 American Legion posts around the country, will help tally public reaction to the 50 trial digital bugles in service.

"It's making sure our families and our survivors are satisfied," Mr. Duggan said. "That's what matters."

Recorded versions of "Reveille" and "Retreat" bugle calls have been used at military installations for decades. Some military chaplains have found a way to include the effect of taps, bugler or not. During a funeral benediction, they read the words traditionally associated with the call, which has been used by the U.S. military since the Civil War:

"Day is done. Gone the sun from the lake, from the hill, from the sky. All is well, safely rest. God is nigh."

Noted one Army chaplain, "It is the final goodbye, closing this phase of his life. I can't think of any words more fitting for a soldier's last farewell."

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