Tapped Out

There're not enough buglers and honor guards to keep pace with dying vets

Even if you've never witnessed the final military honors afforded a soldier, chances are, thanks to Hollywood, the scene is familiar: the clear, mournful sound of a lone bugle playing "Taps." White-gloved, uniformed military personnel lifting the American flag from a coffin and folding it with precision into a tight triangle. And finally, the salute, presenting the folded flag to the widow or children of the deceased "on behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation."

If only things happened that way in real life.

Prompted by a new law, the military is scrambling to correct a shameful situation: the increasing numbers of dead soldiers who are being buried without the appropriate military honors.

Last year, President Clinton signed legislation that guarantees military honors at the funerals of veterans, if their families request them. Everyone who has served at least two years active duty and left without a dishonorable discharge is eligible under the law.

In response, a new Department of Defense policy, which took effect Jan. 1, requires a minimum of two uniformed members of the military -- one of whom has to be from the same branch of the service as the deceased - to fold and present the American flag at the funeral. The policy also requires the playing of "Taps" by either a live bugler or a quality recording.

The problem is finding the military personnel to do it.

Pentagon officials estimate that, nationwide, more than 500,000 veterans will die this year. Among them are World War II veterans, who are now a minimum of 70 years old, and dying in increasing numbers (about 45,000 a month). At the same time, military downsizing has closed bases and shrunk the numbers of active duty military. In fact, nearly 100 military bases have closed during the past decade.

Thanks to size and geography, California is home to more veterans than any other state in the nation. More than 80,000 veterans live in the Bay Area alone, according to the American Legion. But during the past 10 years, every branch of the military has pretty much moved out of the region. And with no active military bases, it's tough to fill an honor guard.

"We were very spoiled, because we had a lot of bases in our area," says Christine Roller, funeral director at Duggan's Serra Mortuary and Cremation Service in Daly City. "Now it's nearly impossible to get them [an honor guard].

"We always ask, 'Is the person a veteran?' I don't say, 'Would you like to have military honors?' because I can't promise that we're going to have that," Roller adds, explaining that the funeral home has taken to trying to gather the honor guard before offering it to a family.

Roller's plight is echoed by colleagues at mortuaries throughout the Bay Area. With some verification of military service (discharge papers or veteran's benefits), funeral arrangers can get an American flag from the U.S. post office. And on occasion, they've even presented it themselves, though it's a bit incongruous to receive an American flag "on behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation" from a funeral home employee.

For a time, Marines stationed at Treasure Island ended up honoring a lot of local veterans from all branches of the military, simply because they were here. And, by all accounts, the Marines made funeral honors more of a priority than other branches of the service. Beyond that, the job fell to retired military officers and members of service organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and The American Legion.

"I hate to see a family disappointed," says Roller. "People who were in the military, especially active duty during wartimes, I really feel that we owe them more than one person presenting a flag."

So does retired Army Col. John Sullivan, a San Francisco veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, active member of several local service organizations, and, for a long time, volunteer organizer of military honors for the dead. Sullivan has participated in about 1,500 military funerals since the end of 1995, performing as many as five a day. Now, he's mainly coordinating other people to do it, and making sure the new law is followed.

"We have the largest veterans' population in the country, outside of Florida and retirement communities, and the fewest assets to call upon," Sullivan says.

In the past, Sullivan has rounded up people from recruiting stations and even high school ROTC units - "although, it's kind of rough on the kids," he adds - to fill in at military funerals.

"The worst thing is a sloppy job," says Sullivan. "We have gone to various [army units] and trained the personnel ourselves. It does take some training to get this done properly, memorize the wording and so forth."

Protocol gets tricky, particularly with retired military members. Their families know the drill and expect to see it done right. In other words, Navy families don't expect to see the Marines bury their loved ones. Ideally, the flag presenter is supposed to be of equal or higher rank than the deceased. And, highly decorated soldiers should get a full honor guard of five to seven people, and a gun salute.

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