The Story of OperationTaps.org
Written Fall 2007
Operation Taps Founder Tom Allen
I was born into a drum corps family in Rochester, NY. My father, Walter Allen was in drum corps when he was a kid in the 1930's before going off to serve in the US Navy in WWII and Korea.
And since the late 1950’s either my brothers Jim, Don, or myself have been involved as a horn player or instructor with groups like the Dutchtown Ramblers, The Emerald Statesmen, Mighty St. Joe’s, Auburn Purple Lancers, Greece Cadets, Rochester Crusaders, Empire Statesmen, or Syracuse Brigadiers. Over the past few decades we've been lucky enough to have been involved with several DCA World Championships, and have enjoyed many wonderful friendships in the drum corps community.
So when my father passed away at age 76 in 2002 – not only did he have three world champion buglers in his family to play Taps, he had literally hundreds of horn players ready, willing and able to do it. Our dear friend David Seeley did the honors, and it would have meant a lot to my dad to know it was him.
The Annual News Story about the Bugler Shortage
I didn’t even think about who was playing Taps for any recently deceased US Military Veteran. As kids in junior drum corps we were almost always asked to play it somewhere on Memorial Day, and it was something we always tried to avoid.
But after my dad died, I noticed every year around Memorial Day weekend, every TV station would run a story about the “Shortage of Taps Buglers.”
As time went by, the story turned to, “There are no more Taps Buglers.”
It seemed impossible. How could it be that no one will play Taps for Military Funerals? How could the media get the impression that there are “No more Taps Buglers?”
And every year I’d go down to the local Memorial Day Parades and see well over a hundred horn players that I know personally. They all complained about the same thing: How expensive it was to be in drum corps, and how “We can’t afford to do what we do.”
After watching news outlets like CNN repeatedly run the story about “No More Buglers” I had to wonder:
1) What Bugler Shortage?
2) If Drum Corps people constantly complain that they can’t afford to "do what they do," and CNN just told me that there are "No More Buglers," then what exactly does a drum corps do?
A Series of “Last Straws”
After a few years of hearing that there are “no more buglers,” I started seeing stories in the media about how they are using a boombox to play taps. They just press a button and a recording of Taps is played for the deceased Veteran. I guess that’s okay, but I happen to know that there thousands of horn players who could play it live – and if I’m going to be honest with myself, then that list includes ME!
These WWII vets signed up at the age of 17 to go shoot down kamikazes, then when they die, they get Taps on a BoomBox?
The BoomBox thing was the “last straw,” I should do something.
But I didn’t.
Time went by, and I still hadn’t done anything, and then I started seeing stories about this new Device that looks like a bugle, and when a button is pressed, it plays a perfect recording of Taps. I read that the guy who makes these things has made over a million bucks from the Department of Defense.
As a world champion drum and bugle corps hot shot, I’m offended… but actually, I should be embarrassed.
These WWII vets signed up at the age of 17 to go fight Hitler, then when they die, they get Taps on a fake bugle?
The Device thing was the “last straw,” I should do something.
But I didn’t.
Who’s Entitled to Receive Taps Anyway?
On Memorial Day Weekend 2007, I went down to watch my old drum corps, the Empire Statesmen, rehearse. This is the corps that I performed with and instructed in the 1990’s. We played more patriotic music than any drum corps in the country. Some of the guys on the instructional staff and corps administration are dear friends with whom I’ve played “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” while marching down Main Street USA hundreds of times.
Their competitive field show for 2007 was a “Tribute to Maynard Ferguson,” who passed away in 2006. To any brass player of a certain age Maynard Ferguson is the Babe Ruth of powerhouse horn playing, and the Statesmen had the kind of talent and attitude to make it a multiple standing ovation presentation.
One of the songs they played was “Taps for Maynard,” a very well done piece of music, and I certainly understand the story behind it, but I happen to know that Maynard Ferguson was Canadian and not a veteran, and I’m just not sure Taps is appropriate.
It bothered me, and here’s why:
There are hundreds of WWII vets dying every day and being buried to the sound of a BoomBox playing Taps, and the most patriotic drum corps in America is playing Taps for a Canadian non veteran.
Another reason it bothered me was my own guilt. I didn’t REALLY know if it’s appropriate to play Taps for a non-military non-American. And even if I did, I certainly hadn’t volunteered to play Taps for anyone, so who am I to talk?
Well, I did some research (finally, I took some action) … and now I’m REALLY upset with myself, the entire drum and bugle corps community, and any horn player I’ve ever met. But mostly I feel very very guilty for not doing anything about it...
Here’s who is entitled to receive a full military honors funeral:
In 2000, the Department of Defense decided that any US military veteran who served honorably in war time or in peace time has the right to a full military honors funeral. That means WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and the Post–Draft Era, including all these kids who signed up after 9/11/01.
It is estimated that 1000 WWII vets die every day, with 2008 the peak year with an estimated 380,000. That’s a lot of Grandpas. And that doesn’t even include the Korea vets, or the fact that vets from the Vietnam generation are approaching 60 years old.
The US military doesn't even have enough buglers to play Taps for those killed in Iraq as of summer 2007, so most vets are being put to rest with Taps played on a BoomBox, or “The Device.”
The Day I Finally Did Something
Saturday September 1, 2007
The DCA World Championships were being held in Rochester that weekend and I had already been to a few events and visited with friends from my drum corps days.
I was taking a walk around 9:30 AM on that Saturday morning and noticed that a funeral was just getting underway at the church about a half mile from our house. There was an Honor Guard preparing to enter the church, so I figured it was for a veteran.
But I kept walking.
It dawned on me that if it was anything like my dad’s funeral, then they’ll be in the church for about an hour and then they’ll go to the cemetery for the burial.
I kept walking... but I also got to thinking:
There had to be between 1500 and 2000 horn players in Rochester, NY at that very moment… it was almost as if my father, and every vet who had ever taught me in drum corps was testing me.
Could I walk by and not at least find out if they needed a Taps player?
No. There was no way in hell THAT vet on THAT day was going to be buried to the sound of a BoomBox with 2000 buglers within a 20 mile radius.
So I went home, took a real quick shower, put on my best dark suit, and dug out the soprano bugle that I must have forgotten to turn in to the Empire Statesmen in 1996. It was pretty much black from sitting in the case for 11 years, but I knew that I could pick up some brass cleaner between the church and the cemetery, and buzz into my mouthpiece in the car, and since Taps doesn’t involve the pressing of valves, I should be able to play within an hour.
I went into the church and sat through the last half of the service.
There I was, a stranger at somebody else’s dad’s funeral. I learned that he was Irish – American, just like my dad, and that he signed up at the age of 17 to go fight in WWII, just like my dad. They had a Bagpiper play "Amazing Grace," and "Danny Boy." And being the true Irish-American I am, it was Kleenex City.
I waited until after the service and approached a family member and asked if they needed a Taps player - please keep in mind that I don’t know squat about the funeral business - I was told that this just a memorial service and there was a previous ceremony that included Taps. I didn’t ask if there was a live Taps player, or if they used another method. Maybe in a way I didn't wan't to know.
I didn’t play Taps that day, but whoever was “up there” testing me certainly got me to get my butt in gear.
That's when I started to put some thought into how I could do something to give back to those who have given a heck of a lot more than I ever have, or have ever even been asked to give.
I personally needed to know what I could do to make myself available to play Taps. What's the process? Who do you call? How does it work? How can I help? How can we ALL help?
After consultation with several respected drum corps professionals and past and current military people, I decided to create Operation Taps.