Bagpiper NCO honors fallen comrades
April 21, 2011
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska -- The bagpipes have a long historical association with battle, war and the military.
Their distinctive sound can dignify a solemn occasion.
The haunting wail of the pipes is becoming a regular part of Army memorial ceremonies at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, thanks to the talent and efforts of one Soldier.
Staff Sgt. James H. Kuppersmith, a parachute rigger and platoon sergeant with the 4th Quartermaster Detachment, played a variety of instruments before choosing the bagpipes as his favorite.
"I've always liked them," the Mobile, Ala., native said. "I always heard them ever since I was growing up hearing them played in Saint Patrick's Day and Mardi Gras parades."
He had already mastered the piano, clarinet and guitar when he started learning the bagpipes in 2005 while stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"That's when I got my first practice chanter," Kuppersmith said, "During my lunch breaks, when I was in the arms room, I'd practice and then I came down on orders for recruiting through the Corporal Recruiting Program."
"I recruited out of Troy, Alabama," Kuppersmith said. "I used to practice on the weekends. When I was off duty, I would practice in front of the recruiting station. A lady drove by, saw me, pulled up and asked if I would play a service and I said, "Sure, why not'"'
That was the first memorial service Kuppersmith played.
Soon, his chain of command recognized his talent.
"My station commander was making jokes at battalion one day, talking about me playing the bagpipes and sergeant major heard it," he said. "The sergeant major then threw my name to the Royal Air Force guys."
A contingent from the British Royal Air Force was at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base for a ceremony honoring the 78 members of the RAF who died while training there during World War II.
They chose Kuppersmith to play for the event.
After recruiting duty, Kuppersmith received orders for Alaska. His interest in the bagpipes only increased. He had invested almost $2,000 a new set.
"When I first got here, I wasn't part of any pipe band or anything like that. I would practice by our motor pool. In 2008 I joined with the Anchorage Scottish Pipe Band. It's actually the oldest pipe band in Alaska -- the very first one in Alaska."
His skill on the instrument soon caught the attention of his command.
"As we were dealing with the initial shock of losing a soldier from this command in combat operations, I stated how I felt about integrating bagpipes into the memorial ceremony," said Lt. Col. Charles Russell, commanding officer, 17th CSSB (Provisional). "My staff took that statement and began to scour the battalion for information on where a piper could be found."
The search ended quickly as Kuppersmith's company commander offered him up.
After one audition he was immediately assigned his new additional duty. Kuppersmith, who is of Scottish and German descent, can trace his linage to the Clan Gunn, originally from northeastern Scotland, via Norway.
The Clan Gunn themselves claim descent from Sweyn Asleifsson, the so-called "Ultimate Viking".
Since Kuppersmith joined the Anchorage Scottish Pipe Band he has won first place his first year and first place in 2009 in the category of Piobaireachd, a classical form of bagpipe music developed in the 17th century.
He also won third place for "Strathspey and Reel" a series of tunes traditionally played for dancers. They are two different styles of tunes/dances, but commonly played together in competitions.
"I play my practice chanter every day for about an hour," Kuppersmith said. The bagpipe practice chanter is a double reed woodwind instrument in appearance somewhat like the recorder, according to Kuppersmith. "The pipes themselves, I'll probably have them up and going probably two to three times a week for about an hour, depending on how much time I have when I get home from work."
Playing in arctic temperatures presents a unique challenge.
"During the cold, it's difficult to keep the bagpipes in tune," Kuppersmith said. "Before a ceremony or service, it takes about two hours to warm up and keep the bagpipes in tune."
Kuppersmith has played more than 15 military memorial services and 20 memorial and funeral services, including those for Vietnam and World War II veterans and retirees.
"It would be great if the Army had a pipe band. I'd be the first one to get in line and try out for it."
In the meantime, Kuppersmith said he plans to keep practicing and playing as long as he can. The 4th Quartermaster Detachment's Executive Officer, 1st Lt. Stephen M. Gagin, has known Kuppersmith for more than a year, and said the piper provides a valuable service to fallen comrades.
"I think it's a great tribute and I think he does them a service," Gagin said. "I'm of Irish heritage and to me it's very touching and very emotional. I know that's the hardest part of any memorial ceremony to me is when he starts playing. He's an outstanding gentleman and, in my opinion, one of the top performers of the company for sure."
Kuppersmith's contribution has become an indispensible part of 17th CSSB (Provisional) memorial ceremonies here, according to Russell.
"I think they add yet another level of respect to our fallen," Russell said. "A level of respect that they have earned and truly deserve. No memorial ceremony will be conducted in this battalion without the integration of Staff Sgt. Kuppersmith."
Kuppersmith said it's clear to him why he provides the service.
"It's a final goodbye," Kuppersmith said solemnly. "I think it's a proper final goodbye. Everybody who serves gets 'Taps' played, but not everybody gets bagpipes and it's just something I can do for them. If I never knew the person who died, it's the least I could do for them."