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Why Gregory Murphy has gone to hundreds of military funerals

When Vincent E. Murphy, a decorated World War II veteran, died in 1999, he was laid to rest with military honors.

When Vincent E. Murphy, a decorated World War II veteran, died in 1999, he was laid to rest with military honors.

Missing, however, was a graveside bugler to sound Taps, the mournful bugle call that has been a standard at military funerals since the Civil War. Instead, it was played from a CD on a boom box.

"He was very proud of his service," said his son, Gregory Murphy. "I know he would have wanted a live bugler."

It was just the nudge that Murphy needed to pick up the horn again after a 30-year hiatus and brush up on his rusty skills. About a year later, he was ready.

Since then, Murphy, 64, of Gloucester Township, has volunteered to sound Taps at more than 300 military funeral services. A civilian, he considers it a patriotic duty.

"It's always my honor to do this," the retired project manager said in a recent interview. "I think about the servicemen and women and what they went through."

On a brisk December morning, Murphy was on post at Arlington Cemetery in Pennsauken at the final resting place for Daniel E. Schmincke, an Air Force veteran.

Schmincke, 72, formerly of Pennsauken, died in Gulfport, Fla., in November. His family asked Murphy to play at the Pearl Harbor Day funeral.

"It was very important to them to have a live bugler," said Ashley Caruso, a funeral director with Falco Caruso & Leonard Funeral Homes.

Wearing the navy blue dress uniform of the volunteer group Bugles Across America, Murphy stood at attention, flanked by two Air Force honor guard members. They waited silently for about an hour for the arrival of the funeral procession.

Murphy put his horn to his lips and sounded the 24 simple but distinctive notes of Taps. After the honor guard presented a neatly folded American flag to the family, Murphy solemnly marched across the cemetery to his car, where emotion swelled up inside him for a veteran he did not know.

"It's not my job to show emotion," Murphy said. "It's to show respect for the person who served and do the best I can sounding Taps."

Murphy is among a dwindling pool of musicians around the country who perform military burial honors as a final tribute to the thousands of veterans who die each year.

The buglers' ranks have declined in recent years amid budget cuts and fewer trained military band members who can play the tune.

"It certainly would be nice to do it all the time, but there's just so few buglers out there," said Kryn P. Westhoven, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Last year, there were about 3,800 military funerals in New Jersey. The state has nearly 400,000 living veterans.

Under federal law, every active duty or honorably discharged veteran is entitled to basic military funeral honors, if requested by the family. It must include a two-member honor guard with at least one representative of the same military branch as the veteran.

Taps can be played using a ceremonial bugle - a bugle with an electronic insert that plays a digital recording.

The track was recorded by retired Maj. Woodrow "Woody" English, the legendary bugler at Arlington National Cemetery, who sounded Taps at the funeral of President Ronald Reagan.

In addition to military funerals, the bugle call is played at wreath-layings, and flag and memorial services to honor war heroes. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the call is thought to be a revision of a French bugle signal, called a tattoo, that notified soldiers to cease an evening's drinking and return to their garrisons.

To help fill the need for buglers, groups such as Bugles Across America, which has more than 8,000 horn players - professionals and amateurs - dispatch mostly civilian volunteers such as Murphy to services around the country.

Founded in the Chicago suburbs by Tom Day, a retired Marine veteran and longtime bugler, the group offers its services free of charge, said James Gallombardo director of the New Jersey chapter. A bugler typically may be asked to travel within a 100-mile radius, and sometimes farther, to a service.

The group has about 75 buglers in New Jersey and 270 in Pennsylvania, he said. Nationwide, it fielded 5,000 requests for buglers in 2015 and expects that number to be exceeded this year, he said.

"The military does the best they can with the resources they have. They just don't have enough buglers to go around," said Gallombardo, who was inspired to join by his father, a World War II Navy veteran. "We're there to provide the real thing."

Like the Schminckes, most families prefer a live bugler. Some don't know that they can request one from the military.

The New Jersey Army National Guard performs about 15 funeral "missions" a day around the state, said Kerry Evans, program coordinator. It counts on six buglers - two of its own and four from Bugles Across America. Every bugler request is met and funeral honors are handled "by the book," he said. Buglers are expected to play regardless of weather.

"It's an amazing commitment with these guys," Evans said. "It's a very high expression of citizenship to devote their time."

The buglers are carefully screened. They must audition or send a recording. Those assigned to the state National Guard undergo two weeks of training and must test out.

"There are no do-overs. You have to get it right the first time," Evans said.

Murphy, who learned how to play the trumpet in high school, diligently practices every day. He has expanded his repertoire to include military marches for each branch and the service hymns. This year, Murphy, an aspiring actor, played the role of a graveside bugler on the NBC show Shades of Blue.

One of his toughest real-life missions came seven years ago. Murphy asked a terminally ill friend - the best man in his wedding - for the honor of sounding Taps at his funeral.

The friend, also a bugler, jokingly chided Murphy: "You don't have the chops to do it."

Murphy rose to the occasion when his childhood friend died.

"I hope I did him proud."

Editor's Note: This story was revised to correct James Gallombardo's name