NEW YORK – While it's not quite time to play "Taps" for the Army bugler, Uncle Sam is having a hard time finding enough musicians to play the ceremonial honor at an increasing number of military funerals.
To cope with the shortage, the Pentagon has bought 50 electronic mock bugles — essentially bugle-shaped stereos — that let the traditional funeral tune be played without an actual musician.
Someone from the honorary funeral guard puts the machine to his lips, presses a button and pounds out a digitized version that sounds like the real brass instrument.
Department of Defense Press Officer Lt. James Cassella said the bugles are the Pentagon's way of solving an increasingly pressing problem: With more and more veterans dying and fewer and fewer soldiers able to play the bugle, it's harder to guarantee the ceremonial funeral to everyone who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
"Now we have 1,800 veterans dying every day, and we have in the armed services less than 500 servicemen who can play the bugle," Cassella said. "At some places, there's a very good likelihood of getting a live bugler for a funeral. But in other places, remote places, it'll be impossible to find a live bugler."
The electronic bugle is not intended to replace a live bugler, only to provide a reasonable facsimile where one is not available, he said.
"A live bugler is always the first choice," Cassella said.
There are currently 275 buglers in the active Army and 432 in the Reserves, Army spokesman Maj. Steve Stover said. Every Army division has its own band, meaning buglers can be found in far-flung places like South Korea, Germany and Kuwait.
A traditional military funeral requires two service members to place and fold the flag, and another to play "Taps." Congress two years ago passed a law allowing a tape recorder to substitute for the bugler, but was criticized by families who said it detracted from the gravitas of the ceremony.
"It's a means to add dignity to a funeral for the bereaved," said Master Sgt. David Artley, a bugler in the Army band in Washington, D.C. "From a musical standpoint, 'Taps' has become such an emotional part of our heritage over the past 140 years that just the bugle call itself has such emotional importance. When you're out there playing for the family, you can see and feel the impact that it has on them."
The electronic bugle will first be tested for the next six months in Missouri, where, if a live bugler is not available to play "Taps," families will have the choice of either a portable stereo or the new bugle, Cassella said.
The U.S. military does offer recruitment incentives to people who can already play musical instruments, but the biggest benefits – cash incentives from $2,000 to $6,000 – go to those who play a handful of rarer or more difficult instruments, including the oboe, bassoon, clarinet, French horn and piano.
Trumpet, cornet and bugle players receive the standard promise of college funds ranging from $33,000 to $50,000 and advanced promotion schedules up to staff sergeant, depending on the musician's level of skill, according to U.S. Army Recruiting Command spokesman Douglas Smith.
But real buglers like Artley aren't concerned about being replaced by the ceremonial faux bugles. For one thing, buglers play far more than just "Taps." And because all the buglers in the armed services are actually trumpet players, they're in demand for full band performances.
"I don't see there being a demise of the Army trumpet player," Artley said.