It’s just 24 notes; not a full composition or even a song. It’s merely a bugle call. But this bugle call does more than move mountains; it moves souls. This 24-note bugle call, known as taps, is part of military funeral honors for those who have faithfully defended our country in war and peace. In this ceremonial paying of respects, perhaps no one else in the Coast Guard best understands taps’ power than Auxiliarist Paul Deafenbaugh, the bugler for the U. S. Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard. Deafenbaugh has sounded taps exactly 936 times in his life; a number he is both humbled and indebted to. But Deafenbaugh, a career trumpet player, wasn’t always a bugler for the Coast Guard.
He first joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary in September 1999 as a radio watchstander at Station Annapolis. When he arrived at Coast Guard Headquarters to process his paperwork for joining, he noticed a sign that said “U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters Band.” He hardly had his ID in hand for more than an hour before he was called back to music. Deafenbaugh walked in, introduced himself and before he knew it was a member of the headquarters band. Deafenbaugh continues to play for “The Coast Guard Cutters” as a trumpeter and electric bass-guitar player, participating in dozens of performances including several changes of command, retirement ceremonies and concerts for wounded warriors at regional medical centers.
When he first started to play with the band, he thought he would inquire about other bands in the region. It was then he discovered the Coast Guard’s honor guard was using a Navy bugler at military funerals. He mentioned this fact to then-Cmdr. Vince Weber, a member of his church where he played the trumpet. It wasn’t long before he received a call one night from an ensign serving with the honor guard. “He said ‘Can you play with us,’” recalled Deafenbaugh. “The honor guard had two ceremonies in one day and was in need of someone who could sound taps.” One needs only to hear Deafenbaugh talk about that moment in time to understand the reverence he has for the bugle call. “Those words meant more to me…,” trailed off Deafenbaugh. “I told him ‘Yes, I would like to serve my country by being able to sound taps for these heroes.’” And so it was that the trumpet player turned auxiliarist turned bugler first sounded taps at Arlington. “I thought to myself ‘If I never get invited back to do this again I have played at Arlington Cemetery for heroes.’ But as it turns out I was invited back.” While that moment stands out vividly in Deafenbaugh’s memory, each time he sounds the bugle it is just as meaningful, “every bit as much so.” Deafenbaugh admits at first he could hardly get through taps without chocking up in some fashion and prayed for strength to carry on and get through the 24 notes. He’s also noticed this overwhelming power taps has when he plays it for loved ones of the fallen. “Sometimes – not always – there will be some member of the family that tries to stay tough for the rest of family that is really upset and grieving. They are a rock and real tough and the shoulders others can cry on. A lot of times taps will break that rock,” said Deafenbaugh. “You’ll see that person just lose it and that will be the start of the grieving process for that person.” But Deafenbaugh is quick to deflect any attention from his role and says, “That’s not the only thing that starts the therapeutic process. The precision and sharpness the honor guard personnel are doing is very striking. Every last one of them, without exception, is so mature and serious about their job. Most are in their late teens and early twenties. They are so committed about what they are doing out there.”
There are many variations in the history of how America’s most famous bugle call came to be. While much remains unknown about the specific origins of taps, it became standard at military funeral ceremonies in 1891. Deafenbaugh doesn’t worry about the nuances of the call’s lore, however. “You hear a lot of beautiful stories about the origin of taps,” said Deafenbaugh. “But I don’t get too wrapped up in the history of it all. I’m still going to sound it as well as I can.” And sound the bugle he does. In addition to his role during military funerals, Deafenbaugh also sounds the bugle at memorial services, wreath-laying ceremonies and remembrance events. “Paul has answered the call for the last 12 years – a fine emulation of how an auxiliary member supports Coast Guard missions,” said Lt. Jason Himsey, honor guard company commander. Deafenbaugh’s exceptional patriotism and dedication to service and country has impacted thousands. Lt. Cmdr. Michael Russell first met Deafenbaugh when he was operations officer for the honor guard from 2001 to 2003. Last month, Russell participated in a funeral detail at Arlington and noticed a familiar sight from the corner of his eye; a bugler standing in the distance. Russell realized afterwards it was indeed Deafenbaugh, standing in the same place from almost a decade ago. “The integrity he lends and adds to a funeral service is profound. That he selflessly does it voluntarily despite the weather is exemplary,” said Russell. Deafenbaugh is a musician who plays and teaches for a living. But to the Coast Guard – and the hundreds he has sounded the bugle for – he’s much more than a musician. He is a healer, a patriot and a shipmate.