During wreath laying ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Master Sgt. Matthew Byrne marches out to the Tomb, brings his bugle to his lips and slowly sounds out the 24 notes of the bugle call, “taps.” When finished, he tucks the bugle under his arm, salutes and marches away.
As one of the Army Band’s trumpeters, Byrne plays the bugle at events around the cemetery and Military District of Washington events in the nation’s capital and throughout the country. He has sounded taps at funeral services for dignitaries such as Gen. Colin Powell and Sen. Bob Dole, as well as ceremonial wreath layings by various world leaders.
Byrne, from Long Island, N.Y., began playing the trumpet in elementary school after hearing the theme to the movie “Rocky,” called “Gonna Fly Now.” After graduating from Ithaca College, he spent six years teaching music at elementary and middle schools in New York and Connecticut before returning to the University of Louisville to pursue a master’s degree in trumpeter performance.
In 2004, at the age of 29, Byrne learned of an opening for a ceremonial trumpeter in the Army Band, known as “Pershing’s Own.” He auditioned for the job and got it. After completing basic training at Fort Sill, Okla., he joined the band at Fort Myer, Va.
Even though Byrne has sounded, “taps,” thousands of times, he still strives to meet the Army Band’s high standards. “There are times that a note got chipped or “taps” was not up to my standards,” he said. “In Pershing’s Own, it’s done right.” Having sounded “taps” at funerals around the country, he knows that ANC is different. “Few places match the level of professionalism at Arlington,” he explained. “The amount of dedication to detail here is something special.”
Byrne has played “taps” in temperatures as low as 8 degrees and as high as 104 degrees, in all kinds of weather. The hottest was a change of command ceremony at Fort Belvoir, Va., where he had to stand on an unshaded field. “It was like standing in a convection oven that was blowing hot air through my wool uniform and high collar,” he said. The pain was most intense on his feet. “Those black shoes make it feel like your feet are cooking.”
Byrne tries to ignore the people around him while he plays, but he has noticed people’s reactions when he’s finished. “I’ve caught tough-looking biker dudes breaking down at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” he said. “It’s a moving experience for a lot of people, especially if it’s their first time at the cemetery.”
Byrne tries not to let cameras or crowds distract him. Instead, he focuses the on the person being honored. Some of the hardest funeral services, he explains, are the ones with low attendance. “That struck me,” he said recalling a funeral attended by only a chaplain and an Arlington Lady. “It was difficult sounding taps’ because it was too personal.”
The absolute hardest funeral services for Byrne, of course, are those for his fellow soldiers. “Those hit closer to home,” he explained, because of the emotional connections he experiences while sounding “taps.” “It’s odd to sit next to a person at work one day and they’re not there the next.”
In early 2021, the Army Band made Byrne its official Special Bugler. His first assignment was President Joseph Biden’s inaugural wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. In attendance were the Bush, Obama and Clinton families. For Byrne, it was a true trial by fire. “There were a whole handful of people that I didn’t look at,” he remembered. When it was over, he received hundreds of texts and emails from worldwide admirers. “I received nice comments from the ëwho’s who’ of the trumpet world,” he said. “It was mind-numbing how many people viewed my performance.”
Byrne also enjoyed sounding “taps” when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol joined Biden in laying a wreath at the Korean War Veterans Memorial on April 25, 2023. The event was private, with no media or audience. Only the presidents and their spouses attended. “Opportunities like that are special and unique,” he said. “I have a front seat to history as it happens.”
Byrne loves what he does. “I can’t think of any other career that could be so emotionally and professionally satisfying,” he said. He enjoys his job so much that his car’s license plates read “24 Notes.” “It’s such a big part of what I do,” he explained. “Those who know, know.”