Demand increases for buglers at veterans' funerals

January 09, 2003|By Justo Bautista | Justo Bautista,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

HACKENSACK, N.J. - The caller was a grieving daughter.

Her father, a decorated World War II veteran - the Battle of the Bulge - had just died.

Could Joe Pallazzo make it to the funeral?

Stirred by her words, "My father is a veteran," Joe, of Jersey City, N.J., didn't hesitate. Of course he would be there.

Joe had never met the woman. He didn't know her father. He's not a veteran. He's not even old enough to vote.

It didn't matter. The demand for people like Joe Pallazzo, 17, a junior at Hudson Catholic High School, has skyrocketed in recent years. His talent: He can play taps.

Call it a case of the youngest generation paying tribute to the greatest generation.

1,800 a day

The World War II veterans who stormed the beaches at Normandy, survived the Bataan Death March, trudged over the sands of Iwo Jima, and liberated Nazi death camps have been dying at the rate of 1,800 a day.

By law, they are entitled to an honor detail at their funerals - a minimum of two service personnel to fold and present a U.S. flag to their next of kin. A bugler, if available, also is provided.

There are 25 million veterans eligible for military funerals. Nearly 8 million of them served in World War II. This year, 674,000 are expected to die, according to the Veterans Affairs Department. Deaths are expected to peak at 687,000 in 2006.

With fewer than 500 musicians on active duty who can play the bugle, the military has been stretched beyond its honor guard limit.

As a result, military officials have been providing regional commands and funeral directors with "high quality" tapes and CDs of taps - recorded at Arlington National Cemetery by the Army's elite honor guard - to be played on portable sound equipment if a bugler can't attend a funeral.

But the idea of hiding boom boxes behind bushes angered some veterans, and the prospect of a CD skipping caused more than one funeral director to hold his breath.

Responding to a flood of national stories about the bugler shortage, Congress included provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000 to set in stone the honors entitlements. The law also authorizes the Defense Department to provide reservists and National Guard members for funeral details, and calls for a partnership with veterans organizations that can help.

The law makes no mention of young volunteers with a sense of history, like Joe, but their help is also welcome.

When he heard about the bugler shortage and the recorded substitution, Joe's reaction was: "That's not cool."

His grandfathers served in World War II. "One was Navy, one was Army," he said.

Pallazzo is a member of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadets and wants to be a Navy musician. He has even attended the Armed Forces School of Music in Virginia.

And so, on a sweltering afternoon in July, he stood at attention in a Paramus cemetery, wearing his dress white Sea Cadet uniform, with white gloves and blue bib. He stood at the prescribed 20 feet from the casket, at the prescribed 45-degree angle, his trumpet at his side, bell facing out.

Then, in a snap move, he positioned his hands on the trumpet valves, brought it up to his mouth, and played a heart-tugging rendition of taps - in the precisely prescribed 58 seconds.

The veteran's relatives weren't the only ones who shed tears that day. Standing in the background, Joe's mother, Linda Pallazzo, beamed with pride. She had driven her son to the funeral.

"There was a tear in my eye, just to see my son do that," she said. "I was proud to watch him do that."

Brian Timmons, the band director at Bergenfield High School, said he wants to get his students involved in paying final tribute to veterans.

"They deserve to have the dignity of a bugler, rather than a CD," Timmons said. "Some kids in the brass quintet expressed an interest in helping out any way they could. We're available and ready to offer our services."

A bugler from the Bergenfield High band already plays at memorial services each year at Borough Hall, Timmons said.

Pallazzo and Timmons are members of Bugles Across America, a volunteer group of 1,301 musicians - ages 10 to 89 - who perform taps at veterans' funerals nationwide.

"Our goal is to give the closure that live taps gives to families, friends, and former comrades-in-arms for their loss, and ours, of a veteran," said Tom Day, 62, of Berwyn, Ill., a former Marine and founder of Bugles Across America. Day has played at more than 600 funerals.

Tom Miller, the Passaic County, N.J., veterans outreach officer, said he hasn't seen a military bugler at a funeral in a year. He calls upon the Clifton High School Mustang Marching Band for county memorials.

High school volunteers

"We get a bugler from Clifton High School," said Miller, 69, a Korean War veteran. "They are more than willing to volunteer. You have to accept it. It's very difficult to even get a color guard."

Ray Zawacki is the New Jersey adjutant for the American Legion, which has 370 posts in the state. He said he has heard no complaints about honor guards at funerals.

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