Giving Veterans A Final Salute Is An OKC Girl's Passion

Monday, July 6th 2015, 10:28 pm

What do you call a 15-year-old girl who truly seems to understand the sacrifices of our nation's veterans and the importance of honoring them properly in death? Precocious? Wise beyond her years? Unusually insightful?

You could call her all of those things, or you might just call her Katie Prior.

An Oklahoma City native, Prior recently discovered that veterans' funerals are, increasingly, lacking a certain authenticity and she's set out to change that. It's a mission she's not just taken to heart – she's taken it to her lungs.

"So, you want to have bubbles," Prior announced, "A steady stream of bubbles."

Prior was demonstrating a common exercise used to improve breathing technique for trumpet players – dipping the bell of one's trumpet into a bucket of water and blowing. Prior's audience was a small group of local high school musicians, trumpet players like herself.

"You can all come up and try it," she told them.

On a recent weekday afternoon, Prior was training the group in the proper way to play Taps. The iconic bugle call is used by the military to signal the end of the day or the end of a soldier's life and dates back to the American Civil War.

Prior was also using the session to educate the students in the appropriate way to comport themselves during the various stages of a service for a veteran.

"So you'll do this any time the flag is moving," Prior said, holding her hand over her heart.

There's a reason Prior is so tuned in to veterans and the notion of honoring their service.

"The year I first started trumpet, my great-grandfather was in hospice care. He was a World War II veteran," Prior said.

Prior’s great-grandfather, Wilford Foresee, fought with the 63rd Infantry in the Battle of the Bulge, surviving not only a close call with the Germans, but also the extreme cold that dogged soldiers on both sides throughout the campaign. In 2011, Foresee passed away.

"And my family talked about how awesome it would be if I could play Taps at his funeral," Prior said.

But Prior's playing wasn't far enough along when the time came, and she had to let the idea go, at least when it came to her great-grandfather's service. But it was one of those things she never really forgot.

"I'd been playing trumpet for five years and I heard that most veterans receive an audio recording of Taps instead of a live performance," Prior said. "I know so many trumpet players ... I know people that can do this!"

Prior, who has been home schooled all her life by her mother, decided she wanted to recruit other young trumpet players like herself to volunteer to play Taps live at services for veterans.

"When she came up with this idea and told me what she wanted to do, I was, like, 'Hmm, I can't help you with this, because I can’t play the trumpet, and I can’t train anyone to play the trumpet,’" recalled Katie's mother, Karen Prior.

Karen Prior did give Katie Prior some guidance, but says it was Katie Prior who founded the Youth Trumpet and Taps Corps, created a website, and undertook the hard work of recruiting others to give the gift of their musical talents to a good cause.

"She is driven so when she gets something in her head, it happens," Karen Prior said.

In a year's time, this 15-year-old has recruited and trained other young trumpet players across Oklahoma, Texas, and Illinois. She has scheduled a trip to Wisconsin this summer. Her goal is to teach students in all 50 states.

"And I think with her dedication and commitment to getting this done, she will accomplish it," said Todd Tramel.

Tramel chairs Dignity Memorial's homeless veteran's project and has been a big supporter of Katie Prior and her mission.

"Our veterans deserve the best, and although we're very honored to have all our military active duty and reserve units come out and provide military honors, most of the time it's with a recording of Taps," Tramel said

Having a live version of Taps played at a veteran's service is much more meaningful and gives the final salute that veterans deserve, he said.

Ron Hise, a former Marine drill sergeant, has assisted Katie Prior at some of her training sessions and applauds her efforts to have Taps played live at more veterans' funerals.

"To hear it live … to me, it's another level of respect," Hise said.

This last Memorial Day, Katie Prior played Taps at several ceremonies across the Oklahoma City metro. At one memorial park, she simply walked around, playing Taps and other military songs for individual visitors.

Many of those she played for were moved to tears. Katie Prior was thanked; she was hugged.

Although Taps is just 24 notes, it is difficult to play and stirs up considerable emotions, not only for a veteran's loved ones, but also for the person playing it, Katie Prior said.

"A lot of people can play trumpet, but being able to actually touch others' lives is a really special thing -- it changes you forever and it changes your perspective of these veterans," Katie Prior said.

Katie Prior earned her Girl Scout Gold Award with her Youth Trumpet & Taps Corps project.

You can learn more about it all right here.