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South Greensburg bugler, 79, has played taps at military funerals since 1956

Airman 1st Class Brittany White, of the Eglin Honor Guard, holds her bugle prior to a military funeral performance at the honor guard graduation at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

Trumpeter John Massari of South Greensburg can’t say for certain how many times he’s performed taps with the VFW Post 33 Honor Guard in Greensburg.

But considering Massari, 79, has performed “on and off” — mostly on — at area military funerals and commemorations with the unit since 1956, when he joined as a member of the Greensburg High School band, it’s definitely in the thousands.

Taps has been the final salute to veterans since the Civil War. Families of honorably discharged veterans are entitled to a two-person uniformed funeral honor guard, the folding and presentation of the American flag and a rendition of taps.

Massari, who also serves as the volunteer unit’s longtime secretary-treasurer, produced a list tallying 1,903 funerals and community events the local unit has served since 2004.

At least 13 people normally participate in the graveside ceremony that includes a 21-gun salute, folding the flag that holds three spent shells from the gun salute plus the playing of taps.

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“We do have a really dedicated group,” said Massari, who served in the Navy from 1957 until September 1960.

He said he doesn’t relish the attention he gets as a musician, adding that all of the unit’s members are important.

“You’ve got the commander who recites the exact orders to the unit, then you have the two flag folders, who have to work with precision, and then the seven-member rifle team who have to fire three volleys at the same time from their M-1 rifles … those are all equally important. It’s not just the bugler,” Massari said.

He laments that few people are still performing taps. Recorded versions are now the standard at many military events in the U.S.

“Personally, I’m honored to do it and these guys we play for are truly deserving for their sacrifices,” Massari said.

Robert Stricklin, another longtime member of the honor guard who has served as president and past commander at Post 33, said a lot of people don’t realize the commitment the unit members make, averaging over 100 performances every year since 2007.

“It’s definitely the backbone of what we do at the VFW because it is the visible vehicle that most people see. And John has been very dedicated for a long time playing and maintaining our records. … It’s a huge commitment,” Stricklin said.

After a decade of struggling to keep up with the “sometimes two and three a week” funerals of World War II veterans, Massari said the funeral services so far this year have drastically declined by about 20 to date.

Joseph Ahearn, a Vietnam veteran and honor guard member, said Massari’s commitment to the unit is appreciated and has been “outstanding.”

“All of us feel it’s the least we can do for our fallen brothers,” Ahearn said.

But Massari notes that due to advancing age, most local members are in their 60s and 70s and a few in their 80s, and have trouble maneuvering through hilly cemeteries. Due to reduced membership, the honor guard in Greensburg cut back this year on its Memorial Day performance commitments from 11 to eight.

“There used to be a two-year wait when you applied to be in the 25-member unit. Now, we have only 23 slots filled,” he said

Massari said it was “sort of natural of him” to join the local unit.

“I started in 1956 when I was either a junior or senior at then-Greensburg High School. They asked me to play, and I loved to play the trumpet, so I did. It also got me out of school a lot of times,” quipped Massari, who turns 80 in September.

He recalled when he started playing taps, some services were for veterans of the Spanish-American War. But another memory hits close to home.

As a young boy in 1944, 5-year-old Massari watched from his second-floor bedroom window as his uncle, Steve Bodner, slung a duffel bag over his shoulder and walked out of the South Greensburg home the family shared. Bodner was on his way to join the Army during World War II.

At the time, the young Massari couldn’t understand why his beloved uncle was leaving.

“I wouldn’t say goodbye to him. It was around Christmas in 1944 that we got word he was missing in action, and it was later confirmed he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. So I also do it in honor of my uncle,” Massari said.

“Like many of the others will tell you, I’ll do it as long as I can,” he said.

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© 2019 Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.