Fading melody: Military struggles to keep tradition

By ROBERT SAMUELS
Miami Herald

News story photo
Photo credit: MARSHA HALPER / MIAMI HERALD STAFF
Sgt. Keston Marin, a member of the 13th Army Band and Military Funeral Honors Team, plays "Taps" on his trumpet at the funeral of Vietnam veteran Jimmie Simmons, 73, July 2.
He marched past the palm trees, the headstones, the limousine and the hearse. Under his arm he carried a silver horn, light in weight but robust with history.

He stopped yards away from the South Florida VA National Cemetery's memorial site on a bed of grass.

A family stepped out of the limo. A flag-draped coffin was carried from the hearse. Three riflemen shot three volleys into the air.

And then it was his time to play the somber song of Americana, a tune etched in our collective memory but fading away from singular moments like this.

Sgt. Keston Marin plays taps. It is a skill that fewer service people have, prompting musicians and politicians to question how to keep pure one of the country's most honored traditions.

Marin, 24, of Coconut Creek, alters the tradition. He uses the trumpet -- not the valve-free bugle.

In the Pembroke Pines-based 13th Army band, there are five trumpeters who can play the musical farewell to the fallen.

But in South Florida, the unit handles some 50 funerals a day.

"Not everyone can do it," said Sgt. Seth Innes, who coordinates military funeral honors in South Florida. "It probably takes 10 to 12 years to play a good taps. It sounds simple but it isn't. Sometimes the simplest songs take the most work."

SHORTAGE PROBLEM

Some 1,900 veterans die each day in this country, and the law entitles all of them to have taps played at their funeral. Combine that with the decreased focus on military bands and fewer young people learning to play instruments and the shortage is a problem in terms of supply and demand.

Often, technology supplements tradition. At a military funeral, a reservist with no experience playing the instrument might be told to hold a bugle with a speaker and recording planted inside. After the volleys go off, the reservist stealthily pushes a button to cue the recording.

Most families aren't told the song is a recording. They are simply pleased it is played so perfectly. A botched rendition can disrupt the solemnity of the memorial.

These facts and feelings converge on the grounds of the national cemetery each day, compacted into a song lasting about 45 seconds.

For Marin, playing taps is both pressure and patriotic responsibility. He said he only has two goals when he plays the 24 notes:

"To make it smooth and make it sweet."

Marin just wanted to pursue his love for music when he picked up his first trumpet 13 years ago. He nicknamed it "Barbara," an adolescent's tribute to the girl he longed to kiss.

He took Barbara with him when he joined the National Guard's band in 2001. In 2005, Innes asked him to become a soloist. The horn gained an even greater purpose.

It was about three years after Congress blessed the use of recorded versions of taps at funerals. Veterans were being buried to sounds from a boombox.

"It's tough," said Mike Nacincik, a spokesman for the Veteran's Affairs National Cemetery Administration. "But there just aren't a lot of people playing the bugle out there."

Just last month, the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a measure urging students to learn how to play taps. In Missouri, the governor directed its National Guard to do all it can to find more players.

National networks such as Bugles Across America sprouted to put military personnel in touch with buglers. Professional trumpeters offer their time, and some ask for pay. But there's an inescapable authenticity to having someone in the military play the song.

Marin agreed immediately. He thought the obligation might be once or twice a month. As of July, he has played taps at about 500 Florida funerals.

The first time was the worst. It was at the Star of David Cemetery in North Lauderdale.

He tried to remain as calm as possible. The volleys were shot. Then his time came.

He cracked.

So, then he'd try different styles to make it perfect. Shorter notes here, longer notes there. He tried using an actual bugle, but the sound wasn't as majestic.

"I started to get how to play taps when I began to empathize more with the family," he said.

"It is the breaking point of the funeral. A lot of the time it is not until that point where you see the closest family members or the next of kin start to break down."

EXPRESSION OF THANKS

Over time, that empathy became easy and automatic. The families come and go. Some express thanks. Others won't find him. During the service, his cap hangs low over his eyes.

But it is this anonymous man who provides the soundtrack for this intensely personal moment, the bridge between a soldier and his service to the country. In so many ways, he and those mourning are connected. And in so many, they are not at all.

Marin is most fazed when playing for a soldier killed in action, in either Iraq or Afghanistan. He has done six of those funerals.

His first was at a service in Orlando. As he peered over the site, he saw masses of people. There were politicians and high-ranking officials.

He marched, took a deep breath and blew his trumpet. There was silence. Then, the sound of sniffles.

That time, Marin thought about the soldier in the coffin, whose life was lost too soon. He never knew him -- to this day, can't even remember his name.

He used the song to thank the young soldier for what he did.

After the funeral, the family thanked the bugler for what he did.

On most days, only a handful of people wait for him.

Before he goes out, he flexes his cheek muscles. He stands to the side, while the family focuses on the flag-draped coffin in front of them.

In 45 seconds, Marin's taps rises and falls, like life itself. He starts with a note that is low and husky. Then, it is loud and regal, dangling in the air with the tremble of an opera singer. It fades with a melody like it first began, softly melting into silence.

There's a pause. Then, the sound of cicadas.

The bugler waits for no applause. He doesn't stick around for any appreciation. As the family mourns, Marin just slips the horn under his arm and marches away.

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