‘It has to be done.’: 84-year-old plays honorary ‘Taps’ tune at more than 2,400 veteran funerals

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The tuba was too big, he couldn’t play the piano, and the strings didn’t strike a chord. So, when it came time for Phil Kowzan to pick an instrument in the third grade, he was drawn to the bright tones of the trumpet. Now, 75 years later, Phil is using his musical talents to honor veterans and their families across the Inland Northwest.

“I don’t get too emotional. I try to concentrate on playing the best taps I can. I don’t want to mess up. It has to be perfect,” said Phil.

Several times a week, 83-year-old Phil Kowzan, a retired Army Lt. Colonel, drives 45 minutes to the Washington State Veterans Cemetery to play taps for a veteran or soldier laid to rest. He wears his Army dress blues with a white shirt, pressed by his wife, Carol.

Wearing white gloves, Phil stands off in the distance and slowly plays the 24 unmistakable notes of taps. In just 45 seconds, Phil takes the grieving family on a musical journey that is equally heartbreaking and soothing for the soul.

“When I’m finished, I will just walk off, and sometimes the family will come and find me and say they really appreciate it,” said Phil.

Phil started playing taps by chance. In 2001, a neighbor, who was a veteran, died, and Phil attended his funeral. He asked the honor guard if they had a bugler at the burial.

“They reached out of their car and brought out a tape recorder. I said, ‘No way, not for my friend, Ivan.’ So, I pulled out a trumpet from my car,” said Phil.

Phil played taps a few times that first year and then transitioned to the bugle. Since 2001, he’s played taps at more than 2,400 funerals.

“I just feel like, why not? I can do it. It wasn’t meant to be played on a recording. It’s just not personal that way. I want them to get the real thing, the live taps,” said Phil.

When the honor guard is short a few people, Phil will often step in and help with folding the American flag, presenting the flag to family, and then playing his bugle. He hopes sharing his story will highlight the need for honor guard volunteers and bugle players.

This month, Phil will celebrate his 84th birthday. He will play the bugle and taps until he can no longer hold a note. And even then, the music will carry on.

“It has to be done, and I hope one day I can have a live bugler at my funeral,” said Phil.

bugler playing at a veterans funeral
Courtesy of Avista Utilities

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