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Honoring those who honor the fallen all year round

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Austin Hazard/Released)

They honor the dead. Specifically, they honor those who put on a uniform and pledged to defend the nation.

These stories look at people who give their time year-round to honor America’s fallen veterans.

What sustains them? Tears are not far from Roy Zanni’s eyes when he answers that question.

“Because the veterans deserve it,” the 69-year-old bugler said.

Another answer: gratitude.

“This is a wonderful country. I’ve lived here 42 years now, and it’s been great to me,” said Suzanne Porter, who provides free horse carriage service at veterans’ funerals.

Memorial Day honors those killed on the field of battle.

On any given day in San Diego County, these volunteers honor the combat dead and all who once protected the nation.

Who: Roy Zanni, 69

Where: Lives in Mira Mesa

What: Member of Bugles Across America, which offers a free, live rendition of “Taps” at the funerals of eligible veterans

A recording of “Taps” isn’t good enough, not for U.S. military veterans receiving their final honors.

So 69-year-old Roy Zanni puts on his pressed, olive-green uniform with a sergeant’s stripes. A shiny trumpet completes the required gear.

Zanni is one of 4,000 buglers — including more than two dozen in the San Diego region — who donate their time to ensure that veterans get a live performance of “Taps” as a final measure of respect at burial.

At Miramar National Cemetery, Zanni is often the lone bugler standing at a distance from ceremonies large and small. His trumpet lends an authentic note to services where a recorded ‘Taps’ would otherwise be played.

Federal law calls for a two-person military honors detail to fold and present the American flag, and to play “Taps.”

However, the bugle of bygone years is frequently replaced by a good-looking imposter: A ceremonial bugle that plays a recording of “Taps” while someone in uniform holds the “instrument” in the playing position.

“It’s beautiful, but there’s one thing that’s missing from it,” said Zanni, who served in the U.S. Marine Drum & Bugle Corps while in uniform from 1966 to 1968. “Heart.”

The nonprofit group Bugles Across America was founded in Chicago in 2000, in response to national legislation that normalized recorded music at veterans funerals.

The buglers offer their services for free at veterans’ funerals. The national nonprofit operates on donations, but no fee for individual services is charged.

Here’s the irony: Due to word-of-mouth advertising, they only cover about 50 veterans’ funerals a month in the San Diego region. That’s about a quarter of services where military honors are given, Zanni estimates.

He’d like to do more. Why does it matter?

“Taps” is an American military tradition that goes back to the Civil War. The song has been played at military funeral ceremonies since at least 1891, according to a 2016 Congressional Research Service report.

It’s a remnant of a bugle system that once numbered at least 19 calls per day, from sunrise to dusk.

That history whacks you in the chest when “Taps” is played live, Zanni said.

“It’s 24 notes that get right to your heart,” said the Marine veteran who got his first trumpet at 8 years old.

“The veterans deserve it, that’s why I do it.”

At a recent Miramar service, Zanni finished playing, his last note trailing off into the wind.

Then he stepped forward, the older Marine veteran joining two active-duty soldiers dispatched by the Army. The trio pivoted and marched away together silently, duty done.

More information on the group is available at buglesacrossamerica.org.

Who: Kathy Bruyere, 73

Where: Lives in Chula Vista

What: Volunteer at Miramar National Cemetery


Who: Allan Coats, 75

Where: Lives in University City

What: Volunteer at Miramar National Cemetery

When Kathy Bruyere is the friendly face at the Miramar National Cemetery front desk, she knows the topic at hand. Personally.

Bruyere was one of the first volunteers assigned to the new national cemetery after it opened in 2010.

Being close to the grave of her late husband, Tom, is comforting for Bruyere.

Capt. Thomas Bruyere, who flew Navy fighters during the Vietnam War, died in 2009. His family waited until Miramar opened in order to lay him to rest. They liked thinking of him under the flight path of Miramar Air Station, where he flew when it was a Navy base.

But Kathy Bruyere’s volunteer job has become way more than just solace to this widow.

She is able to help other veteran families in their grief. To her — a retired Navy captain in her own right — that is meaningful service.

“I’ve been there, you know, what they are going through,” Bruyere said. “Yes, we keep a lot of Kleenex around. And, just a touch of the hand and saying, ‘I’ve been through this as well. And how can we help you?'”

Volunteers at the national cemetery are organized through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which has a longstanding program and depends on people giving their time.

Annually, an estimated 140,000 volunteers give 11 million hours of service at VA facilities nationwide.

Allan Coats has taken that path at Miramar.

His wife, Jessie, died in 2011. A former Navy yeoman, she is buried at Miramar.

Coats came along, too, as one of the original volunteers at the cemetery’s front desk.

“More than anything else, just the idea that it would be something I could do to help other people. And of course, the fact that she’s here, it gave me a tie to it,” Coats said.

Now his is the kind voice on the phone when it rings on Mondays at Miramar.

Coats and Bruyere field lots of questions. The most common: Can I reserve a spot? (No. But you can pre-qualify, which means getting the veteran’s records organized in advance to determine eligibility.)

Bruyere said a family-like feeling has built up over time.

“Now what’s really endearing are the families who come in and say, ‘You know, I was here two years ago with my husband, and today we are having his service, and we are so glad that we came out to see it together.'”

Also, people she met at burial time now stop into the office to chat when visiting the cemetery.

“I do a lot of volunteer work, but this is the best,” Bruyere said. “This is the most rewarding. It’s the most interesting.”

When the time comes, both Bruyere and Coats plan to be buried next to their spouses. They don’t see that as morbid. Instead, it’s comforting.

“I’ve moved around so much, this is going to be my final permanent move,” Bruyere said with a chuckle. “And I don’t even have to pack anything.”

Who: Suzanne Porter, 61, and Wayne Moretti, 60

Where: Live in Ramona

What: Founders of Final Honor, a nonprofit that provides free horse carriage service for veterans’ funerals at Miramar National Cemetery

The white horse is tall and elegant, with its black harness standing out in contrast. The carriage is also black, in the style of an early American hearse.

The drivers, Wayne Moretti and Suzanne Porter, fill out the picture, with their formal black suits and Moretti’s top hat.

The nonprofit group Final Honor has been providing a solemn, dignified final transport to U.S. veterans at Miramar National Cemetery since 2011.

The group offers its services without charge on Mondays, taking donations the rest of the week to fund the donated time.

Last year they provided more than 400 free carriage transports on Mondays for veterans’ services.

Porter grew up in Britain and worked at an American air base there. Her parents were teenagers during the German bombing of England during World War II.

“Without you bloody Yanks, I don’t know where we’d be,” Porter said, laughing. “This is my paying it forward. This is a wonderful country. I’ve lived here 42 years now, and it’s been great to me.”

The couple operated a carriage company based in Julian for more than 20 years. After selling that enterprise, they focused their commercial business on funeral services, traveling around Southern California with their horse-drawn hearse.

But Mondays are devoted to veterans funerals at Miramar.

It’s a long day, starting at dawn to get the horse loaded up at their ranch in Ramona. They participate in several services at the cemetery, from mid-morning up through tea time.

Their role is to lead the funeral procession to the ceremony location. The flag-draped casket or urn rides in the place of honor in the windowed hearse.

The rig is not a caisson, which is a military wagon traditionally used for hauling ammunition. A caisson is famously used for funerals at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

But this horse-drawn carriage helps bring a sense of tradition and nobility to a sorrowful occasion.

Some services are imprinted in Porter’s memory.

On the same day in 2014 as a massive, overflowing memorial for Jerry Coleman, the beloved Padres announcer, the final event of that Monday was a tiny service for an elderly veteran.

Almost no one came.

“It was the caregivers who brought him in. And it was a very inexpensive casket. I was the witness,” Porter remembers.

“There he was, he had no family. But we got to bring him in still with all the dignity and all the trimmings that he should have had.”

Having a front seat on so many veterans’ memorials is an honor for them, Moretti said.

“When you get to do this, and you see the military services, you have such a huge pride in our military and our country,” he said.

At the end of a full Monday, the horse — one of two French draft horses named Katy and Kandy — gets a handful of carrots before the whole show is loaded into the trailer for the ride home.

It’s a labor of love that costs $1,200 each Monday for gas and supplies. The couple used to do it at their own expense before forming the nonprofit group.

They would like to offer free transportation for veterans’ funerals on other days, if the funding was available.

For more information go to finalhonor.net.


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