The first time 16-year-old Robert Wilson stood before a crowd of more than 1,000 fellow Boy Scouts, veterans and onlookers with a bugle in his shaking hands, he didn’t look at any of them.
As he raised the shining silver instrument to blow taps at the 2010 Scouts pre-Memorial Day ceremony, he saw only blue.
“I didn’t look at anyone,” Wilson said. “I just looked at the sky the whole time.”
The teen was still nervous Friday, on the eve of his second Scout ceremony Saturday, but said he felt more confident this time.
David Cox knows how Wilson feels but is proud that he helped recruit the young man to play in honor of the fallen.
“It’s not that difficult physically, but it is difficult emotionally and on your nerves,” said the Tennessee director of Bugles Across America.
“Taps can really tap your emotions,” he said.
Last year Cox, whose son is in Cub Scouts, started looking for a Boy Scout who played the trumpet and could play the traditional lights-out call at the annual Scout ceremony.
For many years the ceremony used a recording, as do many military funerals for lack of qualified buglers.
Bugle playing used to be integral to both the military and Boy Scouts. Cox said many funerals during wartime featured Boy Scout buglers because many of the men were overseas.
So when military supporters and veterans began noticing a shortage of qualified buglers, Bugles Across America formed in 2000, according to the group’s website.
Wilson’s playing and the Scouts’ Saturday ceremony kicked off Memorial Day events at Chattanooga National Cemetery that will conclude Monday evening with a torchlit walk through the grounds.
More than 100,000 people are expected to attend activities at the VA’s national cemeteries, with color guards, readings, bands and choir performances. Events will honor more than 1 million men and women who died in military service during wartime, including more than 655,000 battle deaths.
Shortly after the last notes played at Chattanooga National Cemetery, hundreds of Boy and Girl Scouts fanned across its 120 acres to plant flags at each of the 40,000 plots.
The walk honors various veterans from conflicts beginning with the Civil War.
Ron Wondolowski took over as director of Chattanooga National Cemetery late last year. He has worked at five national cemeteries since retiring from the military.
Though many people will visit family, head to the beach or fire up the grill on Memorial Day, Wondolowski urged people to come to the Monday service, honor the fallen and think of the veterans currently serving overseas.
A national message from the VA head details some of those sacrifices being observed.
“The fallen warriors we honor on Memorial Day cherished liberty and freedom enough to lay down their lives to preserve our way of life,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki. “We owe them eternal gratitude and we must pass those sentiments on to future generations.”
The VA maintains more than 3 million gravesites at its 131 national cemeteries. In 2010, the VA conducted more than 111,800 burials in its national cemeteries. The number of annual interments is expected to increase over the next two years. This year’s budget for VA national cemetery operation and construction is nearly $446 million.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...