Duty and Honor, in 24 Notes

Times Staff Writer

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.

While researching the issue in 2002, Crobie discovered Bugles Across America. The organization, which helps connect military families with musicians, has recruited about 5,000 volunteer horn players nationwide.

"The symbolism of having a live bugler" helps to provide the family with closure, says Tom Day, founder of the group based in Berwyn, Ill. "For the musicians like Ed, they join a community of their peers and find a sense of purpose and duty."

Crobie eagerly signed up with the nonprofit group, and began practicing bugle calls while baby-sitting his granddaughter. He also decided to find the families himself.

In February 2002, Crobie drove out to Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, the nation's second-largest veterans cemetery, about 50 miles southwest of downtown Chicago.

Wandering across the rolling hills, crowded with groves of oak and elm trees stripped by the winter wind, he stumbled across a volunteer honor guard and offered to play.

The honor guard put away the CD and invited Crobie to join them.

"I just kept coming back, until everyone here began to expect seeing me," Crobie said. "I feel like by doing this, I'm serving my country still."

It's 9 a.m. by the time Crobie arrives at the cemetery. Before heading out to the graveyard, he stops by the administration building to pick up his schedule for the day.

Each day is different. Mondays tend to be busier -- "We've had 15 funerals in a day," Crobie says -- because the services often back up over the weekend. But this particular Monday is a slow one: "There's only six to do today."

One veteran served in World War II. Another was in Vietnam. Three served in the Korean War. Their average age is 72.

The final funeral of the day is for Marine Lance Cpl. Adam Wade Kaiser, who was killed in Iraq. In early December, a roadside bomb exploded while his unit was on patrol outside of Fallouja. He was 19.

Crobie has two daughters and a son. All three are older than Kaiser.

"If I think about it too much, I won't be able to play," Crobie says. "This is emotional enough without thinking, 'That could be my son.' "

Crobie heads outside. With John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever" booming on the stereo of his pickup truck, he drives down a gravel road.

Moments later, he arrives at an open-air shelter, where four stone pillars hold up a tall peaked roof. Stepping out of the truck, Crobie walks across the snow toward the shelter. The bodies first stop here, to receive honors before being interred.

Crobie plays here, standing near a dozen other retirees who make up the Monday memorial funeral detail. There are four honor guards at Abraham Lincoln cemetery; each group volunteers one day a week. While Crobie plays the bugle, these men escort the caskets and fire M-1s in the traditional 21-gun salute.

"Hey Ed! How's it going?" hollers Jack Gleason, 72, an Army veteran and part of the Monday honor guard. "Think it might be too cold for the families to come out?"

A biting wind ruffles the tips of Crobie's short gray hair, which peeks out of the edge of his fur-lined cap.

"I know it's cold enough to worry about the spittle freezing in my bugle," Crobie replies.

But there's no time to warm the horn: The first black hearse, carrying Nathan Street Jr., is inching its way up the road. Street, 73, was a retired Army private injured in combat during the Korean War. He died of cancer.

"They're coming!" Crobie shouts. "Time to move!"

Thirteen pairs of feet crunch through the snow, lining up as the hearse comes to a stop. The Street family, clinging to one another, gaze upon the American flag covering the casket.

"My husband was very clear: When he died, he wanted to be buried the way he lived -- the traditional military way," says Deborah Street, 68, of Chicago.

Off to the side, Crobie stands at attention. His wind-chapped face is stoic and his brown eyes focus on the honor guard as the bugler waits for his cue.

The honor guard raises seven rifles and fires three times. Before the smell of gunpowder fades, Crobie lifts his bugle, takes a deep breath and begins to play.

Twenty-four notes ring out -- a simple, sadly elegant melody that lasts 53 seconds. At the end, Crobie lowers his bugle and salutes the casket.

A minute passes. No one speaks. The only sound is the whistle of the wind.

"Even now, my heart will pound before I start. After, I thank God for helping me get through it, that I didn't make a mistake or a slip," Crobie says. "It's hard to do it. But I could do 50 a day if I had to, because they deserve it."

For the next five hours, as Crobie repeats his performance, he tries to ignore the cold cramping his fingers. He pulls a thick scarf over his mouth when his lips grow numb. His shoulders ache so badly from bursitis, he gasps each time he lifts the bugle.

He could leave. People would understand. But he doesn't want to. The last funeral is for Kaiser, the young Marine from Naperville, Ill.

"It's just so sad," Crobie says. "It's always hardest with the young ones because they've left so many people behind. I can make it through one more."

Crobie takes his position, a few yards away from where Kaiser's friends have placed an M-16, combat boots, helmet and dog tags.

Hundreds of people cram into the shelter, standing shoulder to shoulder around the casket. Wade and Christine Kaiser, the Marine's parents, sit on black metal folding chairs in the front. Their faces are pale, their eyes glazed.

As Crobie sounds the first note, Wade Kaiser turns toward the music. He stares at the bugler. The grieving father never blinks. As the last note echoes across the grounds, mingling with the muffled sound of sobbing, Kaiser briefly nods at Crobie.

Crobie stands at attention. Only the tears, slowly running down each cheek, show his emotions.

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