His creases are flawless, the blacks and yellows so striking that they nearly jump off his uniform.
Auston O’Neill, peering through dark glasses, stands beside his bride of 40 years, Bonnie, with an infectious smile and the pride of a man who spends his time and musical talents paying tribute to his late father and America’s greatest generation.
Behind O’Neill is the wrapped RV that accounts for the couple’s mode of transportation. It looks like a Times Square billboard, a mobile advertisement for the “Keep the Spirit of ’45 Alive!” campaign. There are patriotic images alongside photos of O’Neill, the campaign’s distinguished national bugler.
O’Neill notes that he’ll be 68 next January, rounding up the years like a grade-schooler trying to sound older than his friends.
He is mentally impervious to the cancer that has spread to his lymph nodes. He is undeterred by doctors telling him that the cancer is terminal.
“I’m going back to a cancer center, get treatment and get rid of it,” O’Neill said. “And you know, I believe in God for my healing. I’m getting stronger as the days go by. I’m not getting weaker.”
Standing outside U-Haul headquarters in Phoenix, O’Neill looks at the towers and comments on the quality of the operation. He expresses appreciation for U-Haul Company’s role in assisting a group that honors World War II veterans.
O’Neill’s father, Auston Sr., was a WWII vet. So was U-Haul founder L.S. “Sam” Shoen.
U-Haul has committed to covering the cost of the Spirit of ’45 float in the upcoming Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C. U-Haul has sponsored the Spirit of ’45 through financial and in-kind donations for many years.
Read more stories of U-Haul Company’s charitable efforts at our In the Community page on myuhaulstory.com.
O’Neill is a worthy voice for national director Warren Hegg’s campaign, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. O’Neill has made some 350 stops in the last year, traveling 46,000 miles to 45 states. Five states remained on his tour when he stopped in Phoenix to visit U-Haul and Republican Sen. John McCain.
“This year I’m supposed to fly to Manila because we’re going to have a round-the-world tribute and bugle playing,” O’Neill said. “Then we’re supposed to fly to Hawaii where it ends with (honoring the late) Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, a sponsor of the Spirit of ’45 Day resolution that was passed unanimously by the Congress in 2010. So I’m going to honor him by playing last Taps.”
Just how did O’Neill, who began playing trumpet at 7, find his way to partnering with the Spirit of ’45?
“When my dad died (five years ago), they had a ceremony and they sent two guys who were with The Old Guard and they brought a boom box with them,” O’Neill said. “When it came time to play the Taps, they just a pushed a button on the boom box. I thought it was a travesty.
“Right after that I heard a guy on TV named Tom Day and he had an organization called Bugles Across America. I called him up, I told him the story about my dad and I said I would like to join Bugles Across America. So I did.
“Then when Warren Hegg – this was before I knew him – had a bugle call in Washington D.C., 15 of us were supposed to show up. But it was thundering and lightning and storming that whole day. I was the only one that showed up. I laid a wreath at the World War II Memorial and I played Taps in the rain. So Warren called me and I told him what I did. He said, ‘You played Taps in the lightning and thunder as much as it was raining?’ I said, ‘Yes. I had a commitment.’”
O’Neill even played Taps at a memorial for WWII veteran, Major League Baseball player and famed sports broadcaster Jerry Coleman in 4-degree temperatures. O’Neill’s lips literally froze to the mouthpiece, but he kept playing.
“That’s how I became the national bugler for the Spirit of ’45,” O’Neill said.
Music and faith have been staples throughout O’Neill’s life. He and Bonnie met at a Ponderosa Steakhouse that doubled as a dance club in the evenings. The two Virginians were dating other people when they met, but that would soon change.
“I was actually interested in him the first time I saw him, so it was all good with me,” Bonnie said, shifting the conversation from past to present.
“When he did all the surgeries and all the radiation and they said they couldn’t do anything for him, we got real serious about what we wanted to do. I was on disability. He was retired. So he said to me one night, ‘Bonnie, you know my dad was in the military and they wouldn’t take me (due to a physical reason), but I really want to honor the veterans and I know you’ve wanted to go on the road. I think this is a good time.’
“About six months prior to us doing this, the Lord had told me we should buy an RV,” Bonnie continued. “So we did. Then we called Warren and said we’re going on the road and were not going to be available for the D.C. stuff. He asked what are you going to do for money, how are you going to do this and how are you going to find places to go? I said we are going to depend on the Lord. If this is his adventure and he told us to do it, he is going to tell us where to go and he’s going to provide the money.
Hegg offered to wrap their RV and help the O’Neills get into venues to spread their Spirit of ’45 message. As for the funding of their journey, the O’Neills have relied on public donations offered through the Spirit of ’45 and kindhearted people they’ve met along the way.
Though O’Neill can’t be sure of the future or his health, he’s sure what he is doing is admirable and spiritually impactful. And he’ll keep touching people’s lives and honoring veterans via his travels and his bugle for as long as he can.