|Francis John Newton (1922-2002)|
As old soldiers fade away, so too does live taps
Most state veterans will have a boombox, not musician, at funerals
Correction: CORRECTION: from 14.11.2002:
An article Monday about the state's Military Honors Funeral Program and a shortage of buglers for veterans' funerals incorrectly stated how the program is funded. It is supported by the state Department of Veterans Affairs Primary Loan Program, which makes home loans to veterans, not with tax money.
DAN BENSON firstname.lastname@example.org, Journal Sentinel
Published: November 11, 2002
In April, Jim Schiebenes got the call that a Vietnam veteran -- a Silver Star winner -- had been found stabbed to death in a Chicago alley a few days before and was to be buried at Graceland Cemetery in Racine in just two hours.
Could Schiebenes, a bugler, come play taps over the man's grave? There would no family or friends, just Schiebenes, a small rifle squad and the folks from the funeral home.
Three rifle volleys, the 24 familiar, somber notes of taps, and another veteran was laid to rest.
"We gave him send-off," Schiebenes said. "It would have been a shame for a Silver Star winner, a hero, to be buried alone."
In one sense, not all veterans, who are being honored today on Veterans Day, are so lucky. Of the 11,000 Wisconsin veterans who die each year, most do not have a Jim Schiebenes present to play those 24 notes as they are laid to rest.
Because of a shortage of buglers, most of their families listen to a recording played from a boom box or over a public address system.
Congress passed legislation in 2000 that every veteran has the right to at least two uniformed military people to be on hand to fold the U.S. flag, present it to the veteran's family and play taps on a CD player. That allowance of recorded music doesn't sit too well with some veterans.
"Why not tape a rifle-shooting, too? Or do an electronic flyover, while you're at it," said Mike Furgal, adjutant and quartermaster for the Wisconsin Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Recognizing the shortage, the Pentagon last week began testing a new "push button" bugle that contains a small digital audio device in its bell. The "bugler" pushes a button and holds the bugle to his or her lips, giving the illusion that the instrument is being played manually.
"Recorded music is better than none," state Veterans Affairs Director Raymond G. Boland said.
Deborah Varble's father, Frank Newton, had wanted an honor guard at his burial Friday at the Southern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery at Union Grove.
Newton, an Army sergeant who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, won three Bronze Stars. Having an honor guard is "important to us because it was something he wanted. It means a lot to us that we can do that for him," Varble said.
She assumed that meant having a bugler present. But, in most cases, mourners at Union Grove hear taps played over "an outstanding" public address system, honors team Supervisor Gary Dierks said.
He leads one of three Military Honors Funeral Program teams, the other two based at the Northern Wisconsin Veterans Memorial Cemetery at Spooner, and at Fort McCoy near Sparta. When no bugler can be found, members of the honors teams play "a very good quality CD recorded at Arlington Cemetery," provided by the Department of Defense, Boland said.
But officials made an exception for the Newtons when they were told a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photographer was going to attend to photograph a bugler playing taps over Newton's grave.
|My family at Dad's burial ceremony, Veterans' Cemetery, Union Grove, Wisconsin.|
When the Wisconsin Military Honors Funeral Program was created in 2000, most veterans' funerals had no honor guard, "just a funeral director presenting a flag to the family," Boland said.
"We've come a long ways, although we still have a long ways to go," Boland said.
The program costs Wisconsin taxpayers $700,000 a year. [Incorrect -- see correction noted at the top of the page. This program does not cost taxpayers any money, but even if it did, don't we own our veterans this?]
The three honors teams perform at more than 100 funerals a month between them. The Union Grove squad alone performed 62 burials in October, Dierks said. Each unit consists of a supervisor and four team members who form a rifle detail, fold the U.S. flag, present it to the family and play taps.
Wisconsin was the second, after Missouri, to create a military honors program. Six states have followed suit. Team members are veterans or in a reserve or National Guard unit, Dierks said.
A number of factors are blamed for the shortage of buglers. For one, few military units are based in Wisconsin, Boland said. Another is the increasing mortality of veterans.
It's estimated that more than 1,200 World War II veterans die every day nationwide. Some estimates are as high as 1,500. That's up from about 1,000 just a few years ago. The annual number of Wisconsin veterans who die is expected to peak at about 12,500 in 2007 and then drop back to 11,000 for a few years afterward.
Coordination is key
A ready supply of buglers would seem to be available through the thousands of high schoolers who play in their school bands, as well as the many adults who play in civic bands.
But Dierks said coordination is the key issue. "If I have a funeral tomorrow at 9:30 a.m., the kids can't get out of school," he said.
To encourage more high schoolers to get involved, state Rep. Terry Musser (R-Black River Falls), chairman of the Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs, introduced legislation last year that would award a $25 voucher toward college to high schoolers who play at a veteran's burial. That died in committee, but Musser is expected to reintroduce it in the next session.
One high school student who wants to play is Tyler Young, 16, a Sussex resident and a junior at Wisconsin Lutheran High School. He signed up in June at the Web site for Bugles Across America, a Chicago-based clearinghouse for buglers willing to volunteer.
So far, no one has called. And if someone doesn't soon, he will contact local veterans groups himself, he said.
"I want to just honor the veterans who have served my country," he said.
Roger Butt, 70, began bugling for the Peter Wollner American Legion Post 288 in Cedarburg when he was in high school in 1948. In the early '50s, when he tried to enlist, Butt was declared unfit for duty because of a heart ailment, but he continued to play for the post until recently, when he moved to Missouri.
"I hope some young buglers will take up where I left off," he wrote in a letter to post officials.
Before he left, Butt found John Pike and Ken Braband, both Cedarburg residents and fellow Cedarburg Civic Band members, to take his place.
"We see it as an opportunity to give something back to the community," Pike said.
Braband's father, a veteran, died a few years ago. An honors group came to his burial.
"It wouldn't have been the same without someone playing taps. I want to keep that tradition going," he said.
Menomonee Falls police Capt. Terry Hansen, 51, began playing at veterans' funerals seven years ago. He does so to honor his father, a veteran, and the Scoutmasters of his youth, all of whom were veterans.
"It means a lot to these men. It means a lot to me," he said.
Schiebenes, an Air Force veteran who served from 1970 to 1974, uses a wheelchair due to a work-related injury and plays at about 10 funerals a month.
"I try to get myself positioned so people don't see me, so I kind of come out of nowhere when it's time to play," increasing the dramatic effect, he said.
Playing taps never gets old, he said.
"I hold my last note out and get very soft at the end, and the rifle squad listens for my cutoff. Then they go," firing three volleys into the air.
For more information on bugling and funeral honors, log onto www.buglesacrossamerica.org or the state Dept. of Veterans Affairs site at http://dva.state.wi.us/Ben funeralhonors.asp.