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When Day Is Done

November 11, 2003

Today, a day once designated to celebrate the end of one war and now observed as a tribute to those who served in all of them, is perhaps a good time to note a largely unnoticed but revealing little development in the honored observance of veterans' service to their country.

Though we make new military veterans virtually every day, and their exploits, struggles and sacrifices garner the news abroad, at home we're losing more veterans, naturally, daily.

So many pass on peacefully each day now -- an estimated 1,800 -- that the military, which provides free, full military honors at veterans' funerals, struggles to take proper notice.

A crucial, symbolic and emotional ingredient for families at military funerals is the bugler playing taps, that soulful, solitary trumpet tribute written during the Civil War to mark the passing of a day, not a life.

Trouble is, today the military's 500 buglers could do nothing but play taps all day every day and still not meet demand everywhere. The simple solution, thanks to modern digital audio technology: a $525 electronic device that fits inside a regular trumpet, providing both the high-definition sound and vivid appearance of a dignified musical send-off, even if the soldier holding the trumpet is tone-deaf.

Today is the first Veterans Day since official Defense Department approval of the artificial trumpet taps.

It was, of course, naive to think that Armistice Day -- Nov. 11, 1918 -- was merely the day that ended the war to end all wars. If anyone really thought that, why give World War I a number? Each military conflict produces its victims, its survivors and those maimed in body, spirit and memories whose devotion and willingness to serve deserve memory and annual tribute.

Taps is an adaptation of an ancient end-of-day bugle call used before night-vision goggles enabled effective fighting after dark. The 1862 story goes that Daniel Butterfield, a Union general, did not like the standard French call and ordered Pvt. Oliver Wilcox Norton, his bugler, to help write a new version, which quickly caught on even among Confederate forces. Over time, taps also became associated with military funerals, along with uniformed pallbearers and a meticulously folded flag.

The new device plays a haunting version of taps recorded on Memorial Day 1999 at Arlington National Cemetery. It's all a lot of ceremony and trouble for the U.S. military and our society to go to in honoring its departed defenders. But then, that's the point of such a special day of memories, isn't it?

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