The 21 gun salute and playing Taps is an old tradition at military and veterans' funerals, but it's a tradition that's getting harder and harder to provide. In 2000, Congress guaranteed Taps would be played at all service members' funerals, but Congress didn't promise live buglers. That has resulted in a national shortage of buglers, which Navy veteran Leon Kirby thinks is a disgrace.
"There's only 500 buglers left in the Army, and there's approximately 1800 funerals a month in the United States. And I feel like the veterans have earned the right to have a military funeral, I believe that they have also earned the right for a 21-gun salute, which right now a U.S. veteran does not get unless the families can find a veterans organization to provide the 21 gun salute."
Military families who can get a live bugler these days are lucky. Most graveside services use the VA approved electronic bugle that plays an artificial version of Taps. Some families prefer to use a recording of Taps played on a boom box. This situation inspired Kirby to form Texas Buglers, which has become the Texas chapter of Bugles Across America. He says their goal is to bring back live buglers, and he started by learning to play one himself.
"And I started taking lessons, and I had four lessons and I taught myself how to play Taps and perfect it, and I started playing for funerals."
Kirby is inviting any person, young, middle aged or senior, male and female, who can play a horn to join Texas Buglers. Those who can't play but who're willing to learn are also invited. He'll even provide the instrument and see to their lessons.
"We actually find individuals that want to volunteer, we purchase their instruments and then we turn around and teach them how to play Taps, and then they donate their time once they learn how to play."
Texas Buglers has only been in business about two months and it already has 142 members. Kirby says the only requirement is that volunteers be old enough to handle the emotions of a funeral service.
"Taps is only 24 notes, but what I tell our volunteers all the time when they contact me, it's probably one of the hardest 24 notes you'll ever play because of the emotions of funerals. So we actually recommend that our volunteers go out to a funeral before they go out to their first one thinking they can just go out and play Taps, because more than likely they will not get through it the first time."
Kirby is buying instruments, and he's accepting donations of used bugles, trumpets, cornets and Flugelhorns. Bob Kindy of the Montgomery County Music Center in Conroe is reconditioning and repairing them at no cost, because he admires what Kirby is doing.
"I think it's most honorable. Anyone that has served in military or has had family in military should honor him very very highly. It's quite an honor for someone to take on this feat."
Kirby says Texas Buglers is a labor of love and respect that survives on donations and volunteers who play for funerals at no cost. Kirby says 90 percent of military families expect Taps at their funerals, and it's their right. He wants to make sure every veteran gets that right. There's more information about Texas Buglers on the website KUHF dot org. Jim Bell, Houston Public Radio News.