Commentary

On Veterans Day, an ode to taps and all it represents

November 11, 2023 3:00 am

The World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Ed Saunders for States Newsroom)

Promptly at 5 p.m., every day, rain or shine, blizzard or heat, a volunteer bugler wearing a period World War I U.S. Army uniform stands at attention near the flagpole at the National World War I Memorial not far from the White House in Washington, D.C.

On a brilliant autumn day, I watched as a Black soldier attired in a World War I Army uniform marched to the memorial’s flagpole. He wore the distinctive blue helmet of the 93rd Infantry Division, the “Blue Helmets” — one of two all-Black infantry divisions of the American Expeditionary Force assigned to the blue-helmeted French army in World War I.

Volunteer Army buglers, much as this one, play taps at 5 p.m. daily at the World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Ed Saunders for States Newsroom)

With a polished bugle under his arm, he faced the memorial. At attention, the bugler watched and waited. Promptly at 5 p.m. he snapped the bugle to his lips and played taps. Pedestrians stopped at the memorial and along the nearby busy street. Downtown Washington, D.C., quieted for a minute.

Removing my Western-styled broad-brimmed Montana hat, I covered my heart and honored the moment. A thousand thoughts flowed through my heart while watching the American flag and hearing taps at the Memorial. Thoughts a military veteran cannot speak but only feel.

The ceremony ended. I talked with the bugler: an active-duty soldier who performs with the Army Band. He volunteers playing taps to honor all Americans in uniform and commemorates the Black soldiers of the 93rd Infantry Division. He said he is honored to serve at the memorial. I thanked him. We exchanged salutes, and he marched away.

Today the meaning blurs between Veterans Day and Memorial Day: Veterans Day honors the living in uniform, Memorial Day honors the dead in uniform. But the strong sinews of remembrance and honor bind both into lasting chords of who we are
and what we are as a people. Taps honors the living and the dead.

The mournful 24-note bugle tune taps remains recognizable throughout America. The tune lasts about a minute. Taps crosses all ethnic, racial, religious, societal and gender boundaries.

Buglers play taps at veterans’ funerals, memorials and ceremonies, honoring those who served in America’s armed forces. The simple but profound tune carries on high the character of the common GI: Simple in their daily lives, but profound in their character, strength and dedication to the ideal of freedom.

Taps is not a song, but a bugle tune. Taps began in 1862 during the Civil War. Bugle calls gave commands to soldiers above the din of battle. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield wanted a bugle tune to end the day and call soldiers to rest from their efforts and extinguish lights. Butterfield worked with bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton and together they modified an existing but long tune and created taps.

Much fact and fiction, legend and lore, surrounds taps. That’s OK. The tune does not belong to anyone, it belongs to all who wish to render honors for those who wore the uniform of a nation, which thirsts for freedom.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

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Ed Saunders
Ed Saunders

Ed E. Saunders is a retired colonel in the United States Army, serving in the military for more than 20 years. He is also an accomplished writer, historian and photographer. He has written books on the unknown stories of women in World War I and the creation of the Yellowstone National Cemetery.

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