As budget cuts are set to silence live performances of Taps at military funerals in New York, one military bugler told FoxNews.com the iconic musical piece should always be performed by an Honor Guard musician.
Jari Villanueva, director of the Maryland National Guard Honor Guard and a bugler at thousands of military funerals, said having a phony hornsman hold up an instrument while a recording plays isn’t befitting of the somber task of burying a veteran. Yet, the piped-in version is what mourners will hear at virtually all New York military funerals beginning Oct. 1, due to a 25 percent reduction in federal funding for the state's Military Forces Honor Guard.
“Taps, when it’s played by a live, professional musician, is much better than having a machine play it,” Villanueva said Wednesday. “No matter how you think you can hold the instrument, it doesn’t really appear that you’re playing it.”
Villanueva, who has performed Taps at countless military funerals, including at Arlington National Cemetery, said digital bugles have long been used by military officials during funerals due to the few qualified musicians available.
“But it’s much better to have a live player; it’s just more of an emotional thing,” he said. “The playing of Taps is open to musical interpretation. I play it a little slower, and hold out notes a little differently.”
A 25 percent cut in the $3.3 million in federal funding for New York’s Military Forces Honor Guard in fiscal year 2013 led to a 29 percent reduction in the program that funds Honor Guard units, said Eric Durr, a spokesman for the New York National Guard.
Due to that reduction, Durr said New York State will no longer hire musicians to play Taps as of Oct. 1 unless someone volunteers services free of charge.
“Since about 2003, the New York National Guard has been using the electronic bugle for most [funerals],” Durr said. “Prior to that, it was basically a guy with a boom box, so the electronic bugle is much nicer.”
In a statement to FoxNews.com, the Veterans of Foreign Wars said it was “extremely disheartened” to learn of the development.
“We were extremely disheartened to hear that the playing of Taps is being viewed more as an expense item than a necessary tribute to a fallen American patriot,” the statement read. “It's disrespectful to the families because our military and veterans ask for so little in return compared to what is risked and often given.”
According to federal guidelines, the burial of an eligible veteran shall consist of no less than two members of the armed forces, including one member of the parent service of the deceased veteran.
“The honor detail will, at a minimum, perform a ceremony that includes the folding and presenting of the American flag to the next of kin and the playing of Taps,” a Department of Defense website reads. “Taps will be played by a bugler, if available, or by electronic recording. Today, there are so few buglers available that the Military Services often cannot provide one.”
Durr said more than 300 military funerals per month staffed by the Honor Guard will be affected. He said no complaints had been received regarding the policy shift. The use of electronic bugles at military funerals has been in use since as early as 2003 under authorization by President George W. Bush as the number of Iraq War deaths and the growing number of deceased World War II veterans stretched resources.
“This is not a new thing. Most [funerals] have been done this way in the state since 2003,” Durr said. “We’re providing the services required by law. Our guys are very professional; they do a very good job.”
Electronic bugles, however, are not foolproof, according to Louis DiLeo, of Seaford, N.Y., who has played more than 7,000 funerals in New York since he was contracted in 2006. DiLeo told Stars and Stripes malfunctioning devices have marred military funerals.
“It’s sad, because this has been a time-honored tradition for 150 years,” he told the newspaper. “It shows the families that we care that much more. Taking live Taps away takes away the human element.”
Villanueva, meanwhile, said that while the electronic version is an “acceptable” alternative, nothing beats the real thing.
“I would hope there’s support for live players,” he said. “As a bugler and someone who has Taps close to my heart, I’d much rather have it performed live. But it’s the way of the world right now with budgets.”