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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Duty and Honor, in 24 Notes

The weather is cold, the mood solemn as Ed Crobie raises his bugle to sound taps. His calling is to ensure that tradition keeps its human touch.

January 14, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

ELWOOD, Ill. — Retired Marine Cpl. Ed Crobie trudges through the snowdrifts with his bugle, anxious to start his day and reach the funeral site at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.

A nearby weather gauge reads 12 degrees. The ground is covered with a thick blanket of snow, deep enough in some spots to reach the tops of the musician's knees. Shivering, he slips small hand-warmers into his gloves, and tucks his bugle into his overcoat to keep the metal from freezing on this recent Monday morning.

Over the last three years, Crobie has spent several days a week volunteering at the cemetery, sounding taps at military funerals. Without someone like him, a recording of the dirge played on a CD player or a mechanical bugle would have honored the dead.

For Crobie, a Vietnam veteran, that is simply unacceptable.

"It's so cold, so mechanical," says Crobie, 59, a retired utility company mechanic.

He refuses payment for his time and has averaged 75 funerals a month. So far, he's paid homage to about 2,800 veterans, including wizened warriors who served in World War II and today's young soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Crobie, like a growing number of retired veterans, feels duty-bound to continue serving his country.

"It doesn't matter when you served, veterans deserve the respect of a proper funeral," Crobie says. "This has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with patriotism."

Mortality is driving the demand for volunteers such as Crobie: Most World War II veterans are older than 80, and soldiers who served in Vietnam are entering retirement. About 1,900 veterans died each day in 2005, according to the National Cemetery Administration. About 688,000 veterans are expected to die this year.

Buglers are also needed at the gravesites of the service members killed in Iraq.

A 2000 Defense Department directive entitles veterans' families to have an honor guard at the funeral. The guard -- a minimum of two military members, one of whom must be from the branch of the armed forces that the veteran served in -- escorts the coffin to the gravesite and folds the ceremonial flag.

Though buglers are part of an American military tradition that dates back to the Civil War, having a musician sound taps at a funeral isn't included in the directive.

There are about 640 buglers on active duty and in the National Guard and Reserves, but many of them have been dispatched to the Middle East, military officials say. The push to recruit or train buglers has been overshadowed by the need to fill the ranks.

"Even if all the musicians in the military were here, we still wouldn't have enough people to cover every funeral," said Steve Muro, director of operations for the National Cemetery Administration. "We need the volunteers now, more than ever."

State military officials say they have had some success attracting buglers from high school bands to spend their summers helping out. The rest of the year, homework, part-time jobs and other after-school activities often prevent the teenagers from attending funerals.

Military officials and funeral directors have relied for several years on what is known as a ceremonial bugle, which has an electronic device that plays a recording of taps at the touch of a button. They also have used CD players to play a government-issued version of the dirge.

The two are different recordings. The CD was recorded in 1999 at Arlington National Cemetery and was used at the majority of military funerals last year. Woody English, a bugler with the U.S. Army, later made the recording for ceremonial bugles in a studio.

Crobie's day begins when the alarm rings at 5:30 a.m. at his home in Joliet, Ill., about 10 miles north of the cemetery. Moving in the dark, trying not to wake his wife, he quietly dresses for his self-imposed duty.

He pulls three pairs of long underwear over his trim 5-foot-9 frame, then reaches inside a closet for his funeral black uniform, which is clean, pressed and ready to go. He slips into a pair of patent-leather Oxford shoes -- spit-shined and gleaming as brightly as the bell of his brass horn.

He nestles the bugle into its navy-blue cloth case, slides it under his arm and walks out the door.

"He's felt that it's been a calling for him," says Crobie's wife Gail, 56, a part-time pediatric nurse. "It's been a perfect way for him to reach out and make sure these families feel their loved ones are being honored and appreciated for what they've done, in a way he never felt when he came home from Vietnam."

Crobie, who played coronet in high school, was assigned to a Marine drum and bugle corps during Vietnam. He didn't know about electronic send-offs until friends recounted stories of seeing CD players at military funerals. He began reading tales about the lack of buglers in local newspapers and on the Internet.

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