Playing Taps to Join the Past and Present
by Drew Holmes
This past week on Memorial Day was the National Moment of Remembrance and Taps Across America organized buglers of all experience across the country to play Taps at 3:00pm local time to remember those who have died in military service to America. We were visiting Jamie’s family in Lexington, KY, but I had brought my trumpet with me and was honored to be able to participate in such a meaningful event.
I could not help but remember another time I was also humbled to sound Taps in honor of our fallen soldiers. In 2014, I signed up to participate in the inaugural GORUCK Challenge in Normandy, France, in honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Based on Special Forces training, the Challenge is led from start to finish by a Special Forces Cadre. His job is to test your limits, push you beyond them, and build your class into a team. The class participants each wear weighted rucksacks throughout the challenge, which can (and does) last 12 or more hours, as well as carrying a 25 pound team weight (more on our unique team weight later) amongst the entire class. Our class had a medically retired Second Ranger, Tyler Grey, leading us.
We started June 6 at 9:00pm at the Les Braves Memorial Monument on Omaha Beach. Tyler taught us how to bound as a unit up the beach in a simulation of the D-Day landing. Having walked in the footsteps of those brave men I cannot imagine how they were able to perform their appointed tasks. It was hard enough just with a heavy backpack, never mind assaulting an enemy position. Tyler showed us still standing German pillboxes and explained the history of the Omaha Beach assault. We rucked up the beach, got lost in a farmer’s field, got absolutely drenched in rain (which subsided the instant we found our way back to the road), and arrived late at the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument. Which was ideal because we got there just as the sun was rising.
The Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument “was erected by the French to honor elements of the American Second Ranger Battalion under the command of Lt. Col. James E. Rudder. During the American assault of Omaha and Utah beaches on June 6, 1944, these U.S. Army Rangers scaled the 100-foot cliffs and seized the German artillery pieces that could have fired on the American landing troops at Omaha and Utah beaches. At a high cost of life, they successfully defended against determined German counterattacks.” That is the official explanation of the monument found on American Battle Monuments Commission web site. Second Rangers consider that site to be hallowed ground and to be there with a Ranger and experience it with him is a feeling I will never forget.
We left Pointe du Hoc and headed back to Omaha Beach when our group happened upon an older gentleman in a wheelchair on the beach with his caregivers. We got to talking with him and discovered his name was Lew and he was a gunner on one of the landing craft during the invasion on June 6, 1944, and was trying to find the spot where he landed. He told us about crossing the channel, taking soldiers to the beach, and removing casualties, repeatedly, well into the next day. “That… was a stressful day” he said in his soft voice.
We rucked back to Omaha Beach and formed up at the Monument. At Tyler’s instruction I opened the extra heavy case that held our team weight, a WWII era cornet that had, at one time, been a part of a U.S. Army band. Then I sounded Taps. The gathered crowd all fell silent as the moment washed over us. We were all there to remember the sacrifices made on that day seventy years ago, but in that moment it was real. Walking in their footsteps, seeing the physical obstacles they overcame, meeting one of the few remaining men who were there that day, it was all real. The humbling experience of feeling what was lost by some and gained by many was inescapable, and a sense of calm came over me as I finished playing.
If we are lucky, we each get to experience a moment like that in our lifetime, one where the past joins the present and those who came before are kept alive within us. When I chose to play trumpet, I had no idea what paths it would take me down. From Omaha Beach to a front porch in Lexington, KY, I am honored to play Taps for those who have paid the ultimate price for us. And remember.