Ron Fernandez, of Albuquerque, and a 1981 New Mexico Military Institute alumnus, readies to play “Amazing Grace” during Silver Taps, Thursday evening. (Mark Wilson Photo)
A single flame burned bright against the darkness at New Mexico Military Institute Thursday night as 16 men and women stood at attention, facing the flame.
Inside the courtyard of the Hagerman Barracks, hundreds of people stood almost hidden in the darkness and completely silent as the annual Silver Taps ceremony started off the Institute’s Homecoming.
The cadets were like statues, not even moving an inch as they respectfully remembered those who once walked the same halls and courtyards.
The silence was broken by the sorrowful but beautiful sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace,” and then a voice on the loud speaker started listing names.
Each name – 121 of them – were read aloud, accompanied by the date each cadet finished his or her schooling at NMMI. The names echoed, bouncing around off the walls of the dorms.
With more than 20,000 alumni worldwide, NMMI follows obituaries and keeps in touch with those who graduated from the Institute. When a former student passes, they send out a written invitation to the family. It is important that every former cadet is honored in the ceremony, said Director of the Alumni Relations Office, Col. Jim Lowe.
“There are two parts to (Silver Taps),” he explained. “The alumni get to recognize those who have come through here (…) and families get the opportunity to see how we honor (their family members) for being part of the traditions here.”
As the ceremony came to a close, three trumpets, from three corners of the courtyard, played Taps in a round, sending the mournful tune out into the silence.
Walking down a path through the center of the living statues, a horse was then lead out of the courtyard bearing an empty saddle and a pair of boots to represent the men and women no longer able to attend the ceremony.
Although Taps was emotional for everyone present, Dalana Pursel and her family were especially touched.
Her father, Lt. Col. Dale A. Pursel, United States Army Reserve retiree, was an annual attendee of Homecoming. He and his wife started bringing their five children to the Silver Taps ceremony in 2005, so they knew the importance of it, Pursel said.
They all attended last year, but on July 19, Dale passed away. His name was called Thursday night.
“The ceremonies afterward all passed,” Pursel said, referring to her father’s funeral. “But this was a final ceremony for dad.”
Adam Murphy, the husband to Dale’s granddaughter, attended the ceremony for the first time and was blown away.
“I seriously have never been to anything like this before,” he said. “It was definitely emotional … it’s a closure experience for everyone.”
Tradition, integrity and dignity are instilled into the cadets who pass through NMMI. And the families see this.
“The pride in graduates from this school is huge,” Pursel said. “The pomp and circumstance … all of it matters. (Tradition) in today’s day and time is sometimes lost in many arenas, so it’s nice that it’s still present in this arena.”