167th Wing Airman steps up to honor veteran after bugle falls silent
By Staff Sgt Sherree Grebenstein, 167AW/PA
/ Published March 16, 2012
Martinsburg, WVa -- Rendering Taps at military funerals is a final way to pay tribute to veterans who have served their country.
But what happens when a bugle falls silent?
An Airman with the West Virginia Air National Guard's 167th Airlift Wing found out firsthand.
Or rather he lent a hand.
Senior Master Sgt. Todd Kirkwood, the Wing's avionics supervisor, was augmenting a veterans' color guard team at a funeral earlier this month in Martinsburg for an Air Force veteran who had served in three wars - World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
"Taps was to sound while we were holding the American flag over the casket, but there was just silence," Kirkwood said.
A member of the local veterans' color guard team was using a Ceremonial Bugle to perform Taps when the electronic device inserted in the instrument malfunctioned. In September 2003, the Department of Defense approved use of the bugle which allows a member of the military honor guard to "symbolically" play Taps when a live bugler is not available. In the past, a recorded version of Taps has also been played on a compact disc or cassette player during military funerals.
"We were just standing fast," Kirkwood said. "I heard the funeral director come from behind my shoulder and explain to the family that there was a technical difficulty and that we would not be able to offer Taps and he asked us to proceed with the flag fold."
At that time Kirkwood and Senior Airman Ben Smith stepped away from the casket with the American flag in their hands and proceeded to perform the 13 steps required to fold the colors so it could be presented to the family of the veteran.
"I took the flag and presented it to the family and when I heard the words that we weren't going to offer Taps - obviously I didn't say anything - but I knew what I was going to do," he said.
As he prepared to exit the tent after presenting the American flag to one of the veteran's daughters, Kirkwood stopped in front of the funeral director and asked him to request that the family remain seated.
"We are going to offer this veteran Taps," Kirkwood remembers telling him.
The Greencastle, Pa., resident then proceeded to march over to where the bugler was standing and requested the brass Ceremonial Bugle.
"I said sir in a respectful way, ` Will you remove the electronic device from your bugle.'"
After removing the electronic device, the man offered Kirkwood the bugle without hesitation.
"I marched back into position and faced our fallen American hero and his family and sounded Taps," the senior master sergeant said.
"I could see within the first two notes coming out of the horn the emotional reaction (from the family)," Kirkwood said. "Some members of the family stood and placed their hands over the heart."
"As always after the final note of Taps we render the final salute," he said, after which he returned the bugle to the member of the veterans group and attempted to march back into place alongside Senior Airman Smith.
But he didn't get far.
"The family intercepted me as I passed the tent and shook my hand and thanked me," he said "I simply told them that that veteran deserved to have Taps sounded."
Prior to his impromptu rendering of Taps, Kirkwood had ironically only played the 24 notes a handful of times.
"That's a story in itself," he said.
For the past decade Kirkwood had contemplated joining the Wing's Base Honor Guard but he explained that "it was just never the right time for me to join the team whether it was funding issues, training days or it was just a bad time for me personally. It just never worked out."
Fortunately for the veteran and his family, Kirkwood not only joined the Wing's Base Honor Guard, but he also learned how to play Taps.
Chief Master Sgt. Ron Glazer Sr. recruited Kirkwood to learn to play the notes. Glazer himself was handpicked to sound the bugle at the late United States Sen. Robert C. Byrd's funeral in July, 2010. Kirkwood is also no stranger to the horn after learning how to play the trumpet in elementary school, a talent he honed through junior high.
Glazer challenged Kirkwood to learn to play Taps.
Kirkwood's reaction? "I said, `Deal."
And he only learned the 24 notes which comprise Taps in the past six months.
"That's going to be the last tangible memory that the family will have of their loved one and you don't want to mess it up," Kirkwood said. "You want to offer your best."
Kirkwood has been with the Wing's Base Honor Guard, an all-volunteer organization, for nearly a year. He has been a member of the 167th Airlift Wing for more than 26 years.
"It's a way of offering back to our fellow veterans," he said of being a member of the Honor Guard.
"Our mission is to honor with dignity and as I sat back (after the funeral that day) and reflected on that, that's what came to mind," Kirkwood said. "We certainly appreciate what our veterans' groups do."
"In the short time that I have been with the Honor Guard we have seen all kinds of things - it's a matter of what will go wrong, it's not a matter of if - and by that I mean it always seems we are working against adverse weather conditions."
The day the Ceremonial Bugle malfunctioned was cool and breezy.
"It seems that winter time is a popular time unfortunately for funerals," Kirkwood said.
Everything from flooded gravesites and rifles misfiring to handles braking on caskets has occurred at funerals honoring those who have served their country in uniform.
"It's just a matter of what can go wrong will go wrong," he noted.
And when such occasions arise, adapting and overcoming is the order of the day.
Statistics show the Ceremonial Bugle is 96 percent reliable.
"The chances of an electronic bugle failing?" he said, "There's a pretty good chance that it's not going to happen."
"I feel that the good Lord had me at the right place at the right time to be able to do the right thing for that veteran," Kirkwood said.
On his Facebook page, Kirkwood wrote of the experience: "I sounded Taps robustly and from my heart. Our mission to `Honor with Dignity' for someone who truly deserved it was accomplished."