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Tapped Out 

There're not enough buglers and honor guards to keep pace with dying vets

Wednesday, Jan 19 2000
Even if you've never witnessed the final military honors afforded a soldier, chances are, thanks to Hollywood, the scene is familiar: the clear, mournful sound of a lone bugle playing "Taps." White-gloved, uniformed military personnel lifting the American flag from a coffin and folding it with precision into a tight triangle. And finally, the salute, presenting the folded flag to the widow or children of the deceased "on behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation."

If only things happened that way in real life.

Prompted by a new law, the military is scrambling to correct a shameful situation: the increasing numbers of dead soldiers who are being buried without the appropriate military honors.

Last year, President Clinton signed legislation that guarantees military honors at the funerals of veterans, if their families request them. Everyone who has served at least two years active duty and left without a dishonorable discharge is eligible under the law.

In response, a new Department of Defense policy, which took effect Jan. 1, requires a minimum of two uniformed members of the military -- one of whom has to be from the same branch of the service as the deceased - to fold and present the American flag at the funeral. The policy also requires the playing of "Taps" by either a live bugler or a quality recording.

The problem is finding the military personnel to do it.

Pentagon officials estimate that, nationwide, more than 500,000 veterans will die this year. Among them are World War II veterans, who are now a minimum of 70 years old, and dying in increasing numbers (about 45,000 a month). At the same time, military downsizing has closed bases and shrunk the numbers of active duty military. In fact, nearly 100 military bases have closed during the past decade.

Thanks to size and geography, California is home to more veterans than any other state in the nation. More than 80,000 veterans live in the Bay Area alone, according to the American Legion. But during the past 10 years, every branch of the military has pretty much moved out of the region. And with no active military bases, it's tough to fill an honor guard.

"We were very spoiled, because we had a lot of bases in our area," says Christine Roller, funeral director at Duggan's Serra Mortuary and Cremation Service in Daly City. "Now it's nearly impossible to get them [an honor guard].

"We always ask, 'Is the person a veteran?' I don't say, 'Would you like to have military honors?' because I can't promise that we're going to have that," Roller adds, explaining that the funeral home has taken to trying to gather the honor guard before offering it to a family.

Roller's plight is echoed by colleagues at mortuaries throughout the Bay Area. With some verification of military service (discharge papers or veteran's benefits), funeral arrangers can get an American flag from the U.S. post office. And on occasion, they've even presented it themselves, though it's a bit incongruous to receive an American flag "on behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation" from a funeral home employee.

For a time, Marines stationed at Treasure Island ended up honoring a lot of local veterans from all branches of the military, simply because they were here. And, by all accounts, the Marines made funeral honors more of a priority than other branches of the service. Beyond that, the job fell to retired military officers and members of service organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and The American Legion.

"I hate to see a family disappointed," says Roller. "People who were in the military, especially active duty during wartimes, I really feel that we owe them more than one person presenting a flag."

So does retired Army Col. John Sullivan, a San Francisco veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, active member of several local service organizations, and, for a long time, volunteer organizer of military honors for the dead. Sullivan has participated in about 1,500 military funerals since the end of 1995, performing as many as five a day. Now, he's mainly coordinating other people to do it, and making sure the new law is followed.

"We have the largest veterans' population in the country, outside of Florida and retirement communities, and the fewest assets to call upon," Sullivan says.

In the past, Sullivan has rounded up people from recruiting stations and even high school ROTC units - "although, it's kind of rough on the kids," he adds - to fill in at military funerals.

"The worst thing is a sloppy job," says Sullivan. "We have gone to various [army units] and trained the personnel ourselves. It does take some training to get this done properly, memorize the wording and so forth."

Protocol gets tricky, particularly with retired military members. Their families know the drill and expect to see it done right. In other words, Navy families don't expect to see the Marines bury their loved ones. Ideally, the flag presenter is supposed to be of equal or higher rank than the deceased. And, highly decorated soldiers should get a full honor guard of five to seven people, and a gun salute.

The new law, at least, will require the military to send two people to fold the flag (protocol dictates that the flag be folded into a triangle prior to the ceremony in the case of a cremation). And, they're calling in the reserves. Congress allocated $5 million to pay for travel expenses and stipends to National Guard and other reservists performing military honors.

"We're having all our folks practice," says Bill Graham, casualty technician at the Army's Ft. Lewis, Wash., base. "In 12 days [after the law went into effect] we had a caseload of 58 funerals.

"If we get a retiree, they're authorized full honors," Graham says. "We'll suggest to the funeral director or family that they go to the local VFW and American Legion to find a bugler and firing party. We have very few people around the area. We try to have an active duty presence to present the flag."

And the numbers are likely to increase. Department of Defense officials project a dramatic increase in the number of families requesting military honors, because of the law.

"In 1999, we did 544 funerals in California, mostly in the southern portion near L.A. and San Diego," says Maj. Mark Ward, of the U.S. Marine Casualty Office in Quantico, Va. "That's quite a lot.

"We still travel and perform military honors for family," says Ward. "The law requires two. We consider that an exception. The rule is as many people as we possibly can. The optimum number is 17, which includes a military chaplain. But there's not one in all of our units. Northern California is like some of our other states: There's only a few units up in that part of the country."

Outside of military chaplains, who are few and far between, securing a live bugler is probably the most difficult part of arranging a military funeral. There are only 407 buglers currently in the military, according to Ward. Needless to say, they're busy.

Thus, funeral homes and honor guards have scrambled to get buglers anywhere they can, from volunteer organizations to high school bands. Locally, funeral director Roller says she's hired students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music to fill the bill. In the absence of live music, the Department of Defense has developed an official "high-quality" CD recording of "Taps," which is available to military units and funeral directors.

And, homeless veterans are afforded the same guarantee of burial with military honors, provided they have not been dishonorably discharged. San Francisco County Veterans Services buried 10 homeless veterans last year, according to office director Cheryl Cook.

All were sent to the San Joaquin National Cemetery (Golden Gate and Presidio national cemeteries are closed) in the Central Valley, where the federal government provides burial and headstone. Legally, homeless vets are now guaranteed a military honor guard as well.

"We lose a lot of homeless vets," says Col. Sullivan. "San Joaquin Cemetery does honors at a group-type thing. It really is a problem and a sad problem."

About The Author

Lisa Davis


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