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Bugler offers a final goodbye at veterans' funerals and other services

Bugler offers a final goodbye at veterans' funerals and other services
Richard Grogan, a bugler with American Legion Post 291 in Newport Beach, prepares to play taps at a Veterans Day ceremony Tuesday. (Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times)

Richard Grogan slipped on white gloves before lifting his bugle from its case.

Built to the 74-year-old Army reservist and Navy veteran's liking, the 4-year-old brass instrument has been Grogan's partner at fellow veterans' funerals and other events.

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Grogan serves in the honor guard of American Legion Post 291 in Newport Beach, a group of 22 veterans that performs military funeral honors and flag salutes. It is known throughout the American Legion as one of the best honor guards in the United States based on its high placement in competitions.

Grogan is part of a small fraternity of buglers that plays at military events — mostly funerals, but sometimes memorial services such as a Veterans Day remembrance in Newport Beach.

At about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Grogan adjusted the point of his hat in line with the center of his forehead and gripped the bugle securely under his arm.

The crowd of about 100 people filed out of the American Legion to the beach in front of a wooden pier. Once the crowd assembled, Grogan marched briskly out to the pier, standing alone at the end for a few moments before he was joined by the rest of the rifle-carrying honor guard. He faced the boats in Newport Harbor, away from the rest of the line. On the command of Brian Fleming Jr., 34, a Marine veteran and Post 291 commander, the seven members of the honor guard each fired three rounds.

With one hand grasping the bugle, Grogan played the familiar four-note melody of taps. The veterans in the crowd saluted. An older man dabbed his eyes.

"Forward march," Fleming said, and the men and women of the honor guard marched from the pier and back to the American Legion building, the line anchored by Grogan and his bugle.

Howard Hudson, state director of the volunteer group Bugles Across America, said about 1,200 veterans are buried daily nationwide. And there are fewer than 500 buglers across all military branches. Under federal law, the military must provide an honor guard of at least two soldiers at a veteran's funeral if his or her family requests one. The honor guard will fold the flag and play taps, either by a lone bugler or an electronic recording.

Hudson's group is a national network of bugle players who will provide services free of charge. He said about 5,000 active buglers — not all veterans — are part of the group, and they range in age from the early teens to the 90s.

"It's our way to say thank you to those who served our country," Hudson said.

Grogan said he plays at about 30 events a year, most through the American Legion, though he is also part of Bugles Across America.

He began playing the bugle when he was 10, after a music teacher taught the then trumpet player bugle calls. Throughout his life, he has dabbled in other brass instruments, including tuba and the trombone.

He joined the Navy Reserve when he was in college and went on active duty in 1962. He spent six years at sea, including three trips to Vietnam, and then went back to college at Cal State Long Beach, earning a bachelor's degree in zoology and later a master's in botany. Eighteen years later, he joined the Army Reserve with his son.

When he joined Newport Beach's American Legion four years ago, he asked if its honor guard had a live bugler. At the time they were using a recording. Grogan has been the bugler ever since.

"It was something I could do that there was a need for," he said.

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Having a bugler at a veteran's funeral does make a difference to the families, Fleming said.

"It becomes a sign of respect," he said of the bugle call. "Having a live bugler is probably the best thing we could give them."

Grogan sees it as a simple, tender gesture: "It's the final goodbye."

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