Budget cuts mean no live 'Taps' at military funerals

Budget cuts to the state's Military Forces Honor Guard Units have imperiled salaries of ceremonial buglers, leaving "Taps" to be played instead by electronic music devices. Videojournalist: Amanda Voisard (Aug. 31, 2012)

A trumpeter drew his horn to his lips and blew a mournful "Taps" at a funeral last week at Calverton National Cemetery for an Army veteran awarded the Silver Star for a World War II raid in Italy.

Relatives of Henry J. Wheller, 96, a Smithtown lawyer who had been an Army captain, choked back tears as the stirring C major triad floated in the noontime air.

"There's something about having 'Taps' played live that instills great emotion," son-in-law David Sheehan, 53, of Hauppauge said as the mourners drifted away. "That version of 'Taps' was played just for Henry, and not for just anyone who happened to be next."

But even "Taps," which has been played at military funerals for 150 years, is not immune to budget cuts.

This fiscal year, the $3.3 million in federal funding for New York's Military Forces Honor Guard units will be cut by 25 percent, said New York National Guard spokesman Eric Durr.

That cut forced a 29 percent reduction in the program that pays for equipment and civilians that support Honor Guard units -- including the $22,000 Louis DiLeo of Seaford has been paid so far this year. DiLeo played "Taps" at Wheller's service. On just one day last week, DiLeo performed at nine Long Island military funerals.

Because of the budget cuts, New York State as of Oct. 1 will no longer hire musicians to play "Taps" on trumpets or bugles at the more than 300 military funerals per month staffed by the Honor Guard. Federal funding pays for a three-member funeral detail to attend military funerals: two active-duty National Guard troops and a bugler. The funding cuts only apply to the bugler.

Starting next month, virtually all military burials at Long Island cemeteries will be accompanied by ceremonial bugles "with an electronic music device inside designed to provide the same visual of a bugle," according to a New York National Guard spokesman.

More than half of the military funerals on Long Island already use recorded versions of "Taps," according to the state National Guard.

The use of ceremonial bugles at military funerals was authorized by President George W. Bush as the confluence of Iraq War deaths and the rising number of dying World War II veterans strained the ability of military honor guards to find enough musicians to staff funerals. The U.S. Department of Defense said in 2003 that "live buglers will continue to play at veterans' funerals whenever available."

DiLeo said he has played "Taps" at more than 7,200 funerals in the area since he was first contracted by the Guard in 2006. They include services for former New York Gov. Hugh Carey, a World War II veteran, and Lt. Joseph Theinert of Sag Harbor, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in 2010, DiLeo said.

He referred to incidents in which malfunctioning electronics have disturbed funerals.

A Colorado newspaper reported that at one funeral, "Taps" continued playing as a bugler who had stepped on a hornet's nest waved his instrument to ward off the attack. At a Long Island funeral last year, a bugler switched on his electronic horn, which began to play before he brought the instrument to his mouth.

"It's sad, because this has been a time-honored tradition for 150 years," DiLeo said. "It shows the families that we care that much more. Taking live 'Taps' away takes away the human element away."

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