Auston O’Neill has covered more than 40 states and 20,000 miles in the past three months on a mission to honor World War II veterans.
The 67-year-old Centreville man has brought his bugle across the country, playing the military song “Taps” at veterans’ homes and hospitals, war memorials and remembrance events as part of the Spirit of ‘45 tour.
Spirit of ‘45 is a national nonprofit organization that pays tribute to the men and women of the World War II generation, particularly gearing up for the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II next year. For O’Neill, though, the mission is a personal one.
His father and namesake, Auston O’Neill Sr., served in the Pacific Theater of World War II. When the decorated veteran died five years ago, two military representatives attended the funeral to fold the American flag, an honor available to all U.S. veterans. But when it came time to play “Taps,” a military funeral tradition, one of the Armed Forces representatives started a recording.
“I thought it was a travesty,” O’Neill said. “All our veterans deserve to be honored with a real, live bugle. The song brings peace and tranquility, even in war, even in tragedy.”
Soon afterward, he came across the organization Bugles Across America. The nonprofit sends volunteer bugle players to play “Taps” for veterans’ funerals and other events. Though Auston had never before picked up a bugle, he decided to join.
“I’d played trumpet since I was 7 years old, so picking up a bugle was easy enough,” O’Neill said.
Since then, he has been playing “Taps” at events across the Washington, D.C., area. One of these events led him to Spirit of ’45.
In 2009, at a funeral he attended in Washington, D.C., he met Warren Hegg, the national supervisor of Spirit of ’45. Hegg, impressed by O’Neill’s dedication to honoring veterans, asked him to become the national bugler for the Spirit of ’45 organization.
Three years later, O’Neill and his wife Bonnie felt called to do something bigger. Both devout Christians, the couple started making plans to travel the country doing ministry work. In July 2012, they bought an RV and started making plans.
“All I knew was we were supposed to go in the RV somewhere, but I didn’t know where we were supposed to go,” Bonnie said.
Their tentative plans almost didn’t get off the ground. In the fall, Auston O’Neill found out he had prostate cancer. After the shock, though, he found a new sense of purpose.
“Faced with this life-changing event, I decided I wanted to do something to honor my dad on our cross-country trip, helping veterans,” O’Neill said.
When Hegg learned of the O’Neills’ new goal, he asked if they would make their trip part of the Spirit of ‘45. Once they knew Auston would be well enough to travel, the organization gave them funding to start the trip.
“This door just opened up for us, and we felt that was God paving the way,” O’Neill said.
Auston went through 37 days of radiation treatment. On Feb. 7, the same day his treatment ended, he and his wife departed. Their son Auston O’Neill III and his wife left for a tour of Afghanistan in February at the same time Auston and Bonnie left on their cross-country trip. If all goes according to plan, their tour will last two full years.
“So far, we went down from Virginia and continued all the way across the bottom of the map, all the way up to Washington state, all the way back to Las Vegas, all the way back across the country, all the way up the East Coast,” Bonnie said.
In each state, the Spirit of ‘45 helped them organize trips to memorials, veterans’ homes and hospitals, cemeteries and events. At each one, Auston played “Taps,” and veterans shared their stories.
“People love to sit and tell you the stories,” Bonnie said. “They may not be able to remember what they did yesterday, but they can clearly tell you what they did during the war. Even the little details are burned into their memory.”
Now they are back at home for a brief break after the first marathon leg. Auston will march with his bugle at the Memorial Day parade in Washington on Monday, joined by students from Rocky Run Middle School and other local students carrying photos of World War II veterans.
“We’re trying to get kids involved in Spirit of ‘45, because they’re going to carry the torch,” Auston said. “If you don’t get kids involved, the memories are going to be lost, and I am working hard to make sure that does not happen.”