The Last Salute

Since Sept. 11, Master Sgt. Allyn Van Patten has been called on to play taps at many more military funerals. But he doesn't mind

it's the most important music he plays.

November 20, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The bugler stands alone among the rows of white gravestones trailing off down the low hillside in Arlington National Cemetery toward the broken walls of the Pentagon.

Beyond an open grave the seven men of the white-gloved firing party shoulder their weapons smartly and fire, reload with snap and precision and fire again, reload and fire again. Three volleys in all honoring the soldier being buried at the end of this brilliant autumn day: Lt. Col. Stephen Neil Hyland Jr., killed in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

The hijacked jet came thundering down the edge of the cemetery at just the point where the sun is now sinking behind the trees on the Arlington Hills.

The last rays of that sun glint off the polished brass of Master Sgt. Allyn Van Patten's bugle as he plays the first mournful notes of taps.

The trumpet call echoes across the Arlington greensward, in counterpoint at the end with the clank of the construction equipment working a half-mile away on the Pentagon.

"It always gives me goose bumps down my spine," says Ted McGann, a reserve colonel who served with Hyland in Hawaii. There's a wreath from their old crew in Hawaii at the gravesite.

"It's the most important thing I play," says Van Patten. "It is honors for people who serve their country, and it helps bring closure for the family. It honors the individual's accomplishments and sacrifices."

Van Patten is the trumpet-section leader of the U.S. Army Ceremonial Band - one of the units of "Pershing's Own" - the premier Army band that plays ceremonial functions in the Military District of Washington, which extends to New York and beyond. About 20 trumpet players are assigned to the band.

The Army Band plays some 6,500 jobs a year, Van Patten says, everything from concerts in the Capitol to fanfares for dignitaries at the White House and the Pentagon, along with recitals and retirements and memorial services.

Forty-five hundred of those jobs are done by the ceremonial trumpet players for funerals and memorial services and wreath-layings at the Tomb of the Unknowns. And in a sense a good portion of the memorials and funerals are an elaborate prelude to taps, the emotional heart of the ceremony.

"This is the last goodbye," Van Patten says.

He's 46, and he has been in the Army 19 years, 17 with the U.S. Army Band. He grew up in Syracuse, N.Y., got his bachelor degree in music from Indiana University and played a couple of years with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. He figures he's played taps 10,000 times, for 5,000 wreath ceremonies and for 5,000 funerals.

"And I take them all seriously," he says. "The occasions it's played for are bereavement and remembrance and closure."

"Closure" is a word he uses a lot when talking about taps.

"Every performance - even if it's something we've done hundreds of times - people are hearing it for the first time," he says. "When I'm playing taps at a funeral it's easy for me to focus on the family and pray for the family and their loved one."

Van Patten and all of the U.S. Army Band trumpet players have been very busy in the two months since the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. All but a few "standard-honors" funerals were canceled right away and the band members put to work at the Pentagon crash site.

"They were using the band and the 3rd Infantry at the Pentagon to assist wherever they were needed," Van Patten says.

The 200-year-old 3rd Infantry Regiment, the Old Guard, is the elite Army unit that provides the formal escort for the president and for military funerals at Arlington and serves as the honor guard for the Tomb of the Unknowns.

Since "full-honors" funerals were resumed - about two weeks after the attack - there have been as many as 29 a day.

"I was talking with the chaplain on Friday who said they're busier now than they were during Vietnam," Van Patten says, because of the backup and the dead from the Pentagon attack.

Already, more than 40 victims have had funerals at Arlington and more are to come. Van Patten has played for "lots and lots" of them.

"There are dozens and dozens and dozens of victims," he says. "You can look up [while playing taps] and see the Pentagon right there.

"I was in the cemetery a couple of minutes before the plane hit right across the street. I was down there playing a standard-honors funeral. A drum major there for a full-honors funeral said you couldn't really see it. It was like a missile. You saw a flash. It was going at 300 miles an hour."

The "full-honors" funeral at Arlington entitles officers to an escort platoon and a military band, as well as the casket team, firing party and bugler of the standard-honors funeral enlisted men receive.

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