WASHINGTON — The playing of taps to honor America’s fallen soldiers is a familiar sound, but at thousands of military funerals these days, not all is as it seems.
Instead of a bugler playing the 24 notes, a computerized chip implanted in the horn renders the heart-stirring song.
A push of a button starts the horn. It sounds a tune that not enough people in uniform can play given the pace of dying veterans and casualties from the Iraq war.
Some traditionalists object, but other people say it’s an improvement upon the more widely used substitute — someone bending over and pressing a button on a boom box to play a recording of taps.
“It’s the closest and next best thing to the real thing,” said Mark Maynard, director of the Riverside National Cemetery in California, where a few of the Iraq casualties have been buried. “A bone of contention with veterans organizations and families was just the sound and tackiness of the military carrying boom boxes to play taps.”
And with the digital bugle — known as a ceremonial bugle — “You’re guaranteed of it being played perfectly every time.”
The Pentagon tested the method for six months, before approving it for wider use last year, and reported that most families were satisfied with the experience. It works using a small cone-shaped device inserted into the bugle’s bell.
“I was worried about a digitized bugle until I saw and heard it,” said Tim Boulay, chief of communications and outreach support for Veterans Affairs, who buried his father, an Army veteran, a few weeks ago. “It was indistinguishable from the real bugle.
“I was impressed,” he said. “It brought tears to my eyes.”
But some don’t want anything short of the real deal.
Hugh Springston Jr. of Patel, Miss., wouldn’t have it any other way. He recently buried his mother, a veteran, at a ceremony featuring a genuine playing of taps, and said his father will deserve the same.
A digital rendition “would make the honor seem phony,” he said. “When my father goes, he’ll get a gun salute. I wouldn’t feel right about them having seven mannequins going out in the field shooting fake guns.”
For generations, the bugle has mustered uniformed men and women from their beds, signaled meals and flag drawing. It has announced the charge on the battlefield.
The armed forces have 500 buglers able to play taps, but 1,800 veterans are dying per day. Only live buglers play at Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s premier burial ground for veterans, but honor guards at other cemeteries have had to scrape to find one.
The fake bugle has been used more often than the real one in the nearly 38,000 military funerals so far this year — more than half are still relying on the boom box.
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