MARTINSBURG – Rendering taps at military funerals is the traditional way to pay tribute to veterans who have served their country.
[cleeng_content id="627879809" description="Read it now!" price="0.15"]But what happens when a bugle falls silent?
An airman with the West Virginia Air National Guard’s 167th Airlift Wing didn’t just find out firsthand. He lent a hand.
Earlier this month in Martinsburg, Senior Master Sgt. Todd Kirkwood was augmenting a veterans’ color guard team at a funeral for an Air Force veteran who had served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
“Taps was to sound while we were holding the American flag over the casket, but there was just silence,” Kirkwood said.
A member of the local veterans’ color guard team was using a ceremonial bugle to perform taps when the electronic device inserted in the instrument malfunctioned. In September 2003, the Department of Defense approved use of the bugle which allows a member of the military honor guard to play taps when a live bugler is not available.
At that time Kirkwood and Senior Airman Ben Smith stepped away from the casket with the American flag in their hands and proceeded to perform the 13 steps required to fold the colors so it could be presented to the family of the veteran.
“I heard the funeral director come from behind my shoulder and explain to the family that there was a technical difficulty and that we would not be able to offer taps,” he said.
As he prepared to exit the tent after presenting the American flag to one of the veteran’s daughters, Kirkwood stopped in front of the funeral director and asked him to request that the family remain seated.
“We are going to offer this veteran taps,” Kirkwood said.
The Greencastle, Pa., resident marched to where the bugler was standing. “I said ‘Sir,’ in a respectful way, ‘Will you remove the electronic device from your bugle?’”
After removing the electronic device, the man without hesitation offered Kirkwood the bugle.
“I marched back into position and faced our fallen American hero and his family and sounded taps,” the senior master sergeant said.
“I could see within the first two notes coming out of the horn the emotional reaction (from the family),” Kirkwood said. “Some members of the family stood and placed their hands over the heart.”
“As always, after the final note of taps, we render the final salute,” he said, after which he returned the bugle to the member of the veterans group and attempted to march back into place alongside Senior Airman Smith.
But he didn’t get far.
“The family intercepted me as I passed the tent and shook my hand and thanked me,” he said “I simply told them that that veteran deserved to have taps sounded.”
Prior to his impromptu rendering of the tribute, Kirkwood had only played the 24 notes a handful of times over the past six months.
Chief Master Sgt. Ron Glazer Sr. had recruited Kirkwood to learn to play the notes. Glazer himself was handpicked to sound the bugle at the July 2010 memorial service for U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. Kirkwood had learned how to play the trumpet in elementary school, a talent he honed through junior high.
“That’s going to be the last tangible memory that the family will have of their loved one and you don’t want to mess it up,” Kirkwood said. “You want to offer your best.”
Kirkwood has been with the Wing’s Base Honor Guard, an all-volunteer organization, for nearly a year. He has been a member of the 167th Airlift Wing for more than 26 years.
— Sherree Grebenstein is a staff sergeant with the West Virginia Air National Guard’s 167th Airlift Wing.[/cleeng_content]