Navy radioman Arvy Geurin saved lives on Iwo Jima in World War II by helping wounded Marines reach medical care. When he passed away last summer at age 87, his widow wanted full military honors at his service -- and that included a bugler playing a live rendition of taps.
But because there is a shortage of military horn players, Gale Geurin and her family turned to the national volunteer organization Bugles Across America. That's how Kenneth Weir, of Milpitas, came to be standing at attention in a Santa Cruz chapel, performing what have been called the hardest 24 notes.
"As three Navy officers folded the flag, he blew taps," recalled Geurin, her voice cracking. "It's hard to explain, but it wasn't really sad. It was more like lifting him up. He deserved this moment."
The solemn call of the bugle provides the soundtrack to Memorial Day observances across the nation. However, it also can be heard at countless funeral services every year. The Department of Veterans Affairs says 642 World War II veterans die each day. While all veterans are entitled to a military guard detail, the Department of Defense often has to rely on "ceremonial bugles" -- a horn that plays a recording of taps.
That's not good enough for people like Weir and Frank Dorritie, a two-time Grammy-winning audio producer who is chairman of the Department of Recording Arts at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg. It's why they are among the 8,000 horn players -- including 450
in California -- who make up the Bugles Across America network.
"I've played the trumpet my entire life," said Dorritie, an Army veteran who often performs at the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio. "Playing taps is the most difficult thing because you know what it signifies, especially to the families. It's the last gesture their country makes to this individual. It has to be right. You never phone it in."
A Department of Defense representative couldn't provide the number of horn players in military bands, but Bugles Across America founder Tom Day said it has shrunk to about 400. As the combination of World War II veterans dying and Iraq War casualties overwhelmed the military's ability to staff funerals with horn players, in 2003 it began using the faux bugles -- which now number 16,000. They are "played" with the push of a button.
Day's Illinois-based group, launched in 2000, fills the void with live performances of a military tradition that dates to the Civil War. Day said the group's volunteers play at 3,500 funerals a month for free and are needed more than ever. One consequence of the federal sequester budget cuts that took effect this year is that Day's organization has added services for members
of the Coast Guard, which reports to the Department of Homeland Security.
"All the branches are cutting back on nonessential costs, and they figure that a funeral is nonessential," added Day, 73, who estimates he has played at 5,000 services. "You have to wonder about the psychology of that. People want the real deal, and we play from the heart."
Sometimes, it's too close to the heart. Dorritie, who attended a military high school in Manhattan, began playing at funerals in the late 1960s. By the early '70s, with the Vietnam War continuing, he needed a break.
"As I did more and more of them, almost every week on a Saturday, I was seeing a young woman, with a child maybe, holding a flag, and it became more real," he said. "Then I realized, 'That could be me they're mourning.' It started to become more and more difficult."
Inspired by Bugles Across America, Dorritie began volunteering again about 2008. Now when he plays taps, he thinks of his father, who was a World War II infantryman.
"I think of who and what he represents to me," Dorritie said. "I think about that greatest generation. They deserve 24 notes. That allows me to stay connected at an emotional level to stay calm and focused.
"I feel like, if you can do something, why not do it? I do it because it feels right and I know it's right."
Gale Geurin, 71, an Air Force veteran from Capitola, said her husband, Arvy, was like many of that era -- reticent about his service. Only late in life did he write a book about his experiences on Iwo Jima, which included ferrying wounded back to the beach.
When he died July 24, word went out that a horn player was needed in Santa Cruz, and Weir responded.
A third-generation Navy man, Weir played in a military band during the Vietnam era. Weir, who has been on dialysis the past 14 years, said playing the trumpet has extended his life -- and he sees this as a way of giving back.
"They first told us in boot camp that they always would take care of us, and that includes being there at our funerals," said Weir, 62. "This is something that's just in my heart, and that's my reward."
Geurin didn't know the identity of the trumpet player until recently and finally got the chance to thank him. That's a sentiment on Weir's mind when he's playing.
"I'm thinking: 'Thank you for your service,' " he said. "I want this to be the goodbye they hear as I'm wishing them well to wherever they're going."