Arlington bugler’s blue note Honors fallen G.I.s

Sergeant Major Henry Sgrecci, the Army's premier bugler, stood apart from the rifle squad to blow the 24 notes of taps last week at the burial of yet another soldier.

As always before playing, Sgrecci, 51, of upstate Watkins Glen, New York, offered the silent prayer he has uttered repeatedly as the slain return from Iraq to Arlington National Cemetery: “Please don't let me make a mistake.”

Three times last Tuesday, the haunting sounds of Sgrecci's gold-plated Vincent Bach brass bugle drifted across the hilly former homestead of Robert E. Lee, now a final resting place for fallen heroes.

On Thursday, Sgrecci played again, for the burial of an urn containing the cremated remains of 21-year-old Sereant Uday Singh of Chandigarh, India, who was living with an aunt in Lake Forest, Illinois, when he joined the U.S. Army in 2000.

The soldier from C Company, 1st Battalion, 34th Armored Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, based at Fort Riley, Kansas, was in the lead Humvee of a three-vehicle patrol that was ambushed December 1, 2003, near Habbaniyah, about 65 miles west of Baghdad.

Of the 496 U.S. troops killed in Iraq through last week, Singh was the 44th buried in Arlington, and the first Indian national.

As the mourners, many of them in the turbans and flowing beards of the Sikh tradition, took their places at graveside, Sgrecci removed his bugle's mouthpiece and cupped it in his right hand to warm it in the sub-freezing cold.

“Your muscles can't always know what to do, especially when it's cold,” Sgrecci said. “Everybody knows the tune” he has performed thousands of times, “but it never gets old, because it's the highest honor I can personally extend to a fallen comrade.”

With the barked command “ready, aim, fire,” the seven-member rifle squad loosed three shattering blank volleys in salute and Sgrecci raised his bugle with both hands.

At the grave, retired Indian Army Lieuteannt Colonel Preet Mahinder Singh, Uday Singh's father, came to attention, his gray suit coat beribboned with the battle decorations of his own armor regiment.

Preet Singh would say later that his thoughts were of “my lost son, my only son. Uday was fun-loving,” and not as devoted to his schoolbooks as his father would have liked, but “he was a good son, a very obedient boy. He was a very brave soldier. He did his duty.”

But now, the father squared his shoulders in the direction of Sgrecci as the bugler played.

The notes did not begin so much as grow and swell from the bugle's bell, gaining strength as they rose in pitch and lengthening as they fell.

The tune was adapted by Union Army Major General Daniel Butterfield from the bugle call for “Extinguish Lights.”

With the help of his 22-year-old bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton, Butterfield revised an earlier bugle call. Soldiers spread it throughout the Army grapevine until it became universal. Butterfield is remembered in a statue near Grant's Tomb, though there is no mention of his connection to taps.

In his own renditions, Sgrecci said, “I am never, ever not motivated to do my absolute best.”

His last note played for Uday Singh lingered so long that the flag team hesitated before beginning its folding drill, not seeming to know the tune was over until Sgrecci lowered the bugle.

Brigadier General Mark O'Neill presented Preet Singh with citations that posthumously awarded Uday Singh the Bronze Star for valor, promoted him to sergeant and made him a citizen of the nation for which he gave his life.

Then a Sikh holy man stepped forward for the ritual singing of the “Shabad Keertan,” a hymn from Sikh scripture.

In one of Uday Singh's last E-mails, Preet Singh said his son wrote to his family: “You guys have fun while I go save the whole world. P.S. Pray for me.”

The father said his son loved fast cars and bikes.

“He was a boy who loved action and ultimately gave up his life for his love to be where action is,” Preet Singh said.

“On December 1, we lost our precious son,” the father added, “but at that same instant, two nations had adopted him as their own – India and the U.S. Uday has touched many hearts and he has made them proud.”

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