May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

The first time Tom Day played “Taps” at a military funeral he was a 10-year-old with an adult-size case of nerves. “I messed up, but nobody seemed to mind,” says Day, now 62, who performed the solemn ritual for the family of a neighbor who had died in the Korean War. “They were moved that there was a live bugler. I never forgot that.”

Last year, when Day learned that a shortage of buglers—only 500 to cover the roughly 1,700 veterans who die daily—was forcing the Department of Defense to use recorded music at most burials, he took action. Day created Bugles Across America, a nonprofit association he runs out of his Berwyn, Ill., bungalow using his own funds. So far he has recruited 450 buglers in 47 states, and funeral directors around the U.S. know to call him or check his Web site for volunteers. “Vets are heroes,” says Day, a sales rep for the Illinois State Lottery. “They deserve better than a boom box.”

Day’s troops share his dedication. “I’m a saxophone player, but I’m learning the bugle to help out,” says Jacklyn Raymer, 15, the youngest volunteer. “I feel it’s my duty,”

Day began his military career at Taft High School in Chicago, where he joined the Army ROTC. He went on to become a Marine sergeant and later served as a public information officer for the Navy and a bugler for the Coast Guard. Wed to second wife Donna, now 49, since 1978, he has two grown children.

No armchair recruiter, Day has ushered more than 550 of his fellow vets into the hereafter. Those left behind appreciate the special attention. Says Corinne Aultman, 53, whose uncle, a World War II vet, recently died: “When Tom played ‘Taps,’ it was so beautiful it made me cry.”

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