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April 5, 2001

"Taps" Is a Means to a Beginning
by Carl S. Ey

As smoke from the final volley of a 21-gun salute dissipates among the surrounding headstones, a young bugler sounds a hauntingly beautiful military tune.  The Marine bugler clad in a red tunic, sharply-creased royal blue trousers and white dress cap lets the notes flow from the bell-shaped end of his horn.  With tears rolling down their pale cheeks, the grieving family and friends of a veteran who paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country listen to Taps as another funeral ceremony closes at Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War with thousands of young service members being sent home for burial at our nation's most sacred shrine, that ceremonial Marine bugler was James E. May.

As a Lance Corporal and Sergeant, he claims to have played "Taps" 200 to 300 times as a member of the U.S. Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and the U.S. Marine Band.  It was those moments playing among the 260,000 gravesites that changed May's life.

"I attribute my calling to the ministry to those experiences as a bugler," said the 54-year-old Army chaplain.  "I wondered what the Navy chaplain was saying to the grieving families and I was convinced that the Lord could also use me to bring words of hope and encouragement to military families."

Thirty-three years later, Lt. Col. May is the senior Army chaplain at "America's Most Hallowed Grounds." On April 15th, he is hosting his first Easter Sunrise Service there.

"I am in awe of the potential for distributing the Gospel," May said.  "Every day we do 25 to 28 funerals here and we confront death, but this particular day we are talking about life and the Resurrection.  I am extremely excited!"

May began playing his trumpet in the third grade. Two years later, he heard the U.S. Marine Band play for the first time and decided to pursue his musical gift.  The silver-haired Robert Conrad look-a-like from 1970's television series "Baa Baa Black Sheep" fondly remembers his mother taking him from one lesson to another as he honed his skills to play in church activities and youth groups.

"In 1963, I went to Valley Forge Military Academy and junior college on a trumpet scholarship," said the Lebanon, Pa., native.  "It oriented me to the military, particularly the ceremonial aspect."

After eight years of military service, the former Marine followed God's will into the seminary in Clarks Summit, Pa.  During his time in seminary, he remained in the Army Reserves and prepared himself for the ministry by pastoring at Northmoreland Baptist Church.  He was ordained in 1979 and graduated from Baptist Bible College in 1980.

 

A year later, May and his wife of 32 years, Ellen, accepted an offer from the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches to become an Army chaplain.  Their Army life began at Fort Stewart, Ga., took them through Korea, Germany, Bosnia and back to Fort Myer, Va.  His military service has enriched his family life.

"There are many people who think there are so many sacrifices and separations [in the military] that somehow the family is automatically disrupted," said the chaplain who has a mild demeanor but strong presence.  "[The Army] brings us closer together because we make so many moves and it has brought so many opportunities to my family.  It is a means to being a better husband and a better father."

May's family is proof of his commitment to the service.  His wife is an Arlington Lady, which entails carrying condolence messages to grieving families on behalf of the Chief of Staff of the Army.  Occasionally, May and his wife conduct funeral services together.

The chaplain's sons are all a part of the Army as well.  James is the 67th Signal Battalion's chaplain at Fort Gordon, Ga.  Joseph is a second lieutenant at Penn State's medical school and Joshua is on an Army ROTC scholarship at Cedarville University in Ohio.

His daughter, Jennifer is married to William Johnson, a seminary student at May's alma mater.  Johnson is in the process of applying for the Army chaplain candidate program.

As guests descend on the 200 acres surrounding the Memorial Amphitheater for the 6:30 a.m. start of the Easter Sunrise Service, a gentleman that began his military career playing "Taps" to honor our fallen heroes will add another significant event to his stellar military career.

"Little did I know that divine guidance would bring me back to Arlington 25 years after I left," said May.  "There is nothing that I would rather have done with my life and our lives as a family then exactly what we have done.  I thank God for it."

2001 Carl S. Ey

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