By Lisa FerdinandoOctober 10, 2014
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. (Army News Service, Oct. 10, 2014) -- Before the sun peeks over the horizon, the Soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), are already hard at work preparing the caisson horses for the day's solemn duties.
These Old Guard Soldiers are part of the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon, tasked with bringing departed military members from all branches and dignitaries to their final resting spot at Arlington National Cemetery.
In the early morning, the caisson stable is abuzz with activity. The horses are fed, and then sprayed down for their daily bath. Their coats shine under the droplets of the water.
Clank. Clank. Clank.
A farrier tends to a shoe on a horse.
Other Soldiers inspect the tack. A horse is brushed, its tail smoothed out. A horse neighs.
The standard for the Caisson Platoon is perfection. The Soldiers meticulously care for the horses, clean and repair the leather, and shine each piece of brass on the tack and caisson.
Their work day begins at 4 a.m.; the first funeral is at 9 a.m.
Soldiers say "hello", nuzzle and pet the horses. Some of the animals can be cranky; it's still early and the golden rays of dawn have not yet broken through the dark sky.
The men and women of the Caisson Platoon are keenly aware that the animals are indispensable members of the team. Soldiers ensure that the tack is cleaned "inside and out" and the custom-made piece is properly put on the horse to prevent injury to the animal.
The platoon members ensure that everything associated with a caisson funeral -- the horses, the tack, the brass, and the Soldiers' appearance and poise -- is to an exacting standard, according to Staff Sgt. John Ford, the Caisson Operations non-commissioned officer.
Platoon members volunteered for duty from the Old Guard and were meritoriously selected to uphold the highest military traditions afforded to those who have served the nation, Ford said.
"The honor for us is being able to show the family members of the departed that they are not alone in their loss," he said. "They are not alone in their grief; the Army grieves with them, and the Army has lost as well."
The Soldiers serve with distinction as they carry out the sacred duty at the columbarium and among the rows of perfectly aligned white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.
It is a great privilege to be a part of the funerals and bring closure, as families say their final farewells to their loved ones, Ford said.
"My best friend is buried in Section 60 at Arlington Cemetery," Ford said, choking up as he remembered Spc. Marlon Bustamante, who was killed in action in Baghdad, Feb. 1, 2006.
"My first visit to Arlington was after we had gotten back from the 2006 tour in Iraq, where I was with the 1st (Battalion), 502nd (Parachute Infantry Regiment), out of the 101st Airborne Division [Air Assault]," Ford said.
He knew then that he wanted to volunteer for the caisson platoon and be a part of that sacred duty.
"From having received those final honors and to see the effect that it had on the family, to see how much that means to the loved ones of the departed, I wanted to be able to be a part of that," he said.
"Until you are standing at the bottom of one of the sections, looking up the hill and all you can see for as far as you can see is the headstones ... you don't really grasp what it is that we do here," he said.
Again, pausing with emotion, Ford remembered the young boy in the Gold Star family who visited the caisson stables on a rainy afternoon when the horses were cranky and Ford was ready to go home after a long day.
"It seems like every time that the mission becomes long or the workload becomes heavy, or a Soldier is starting to get tired, something will happen, a family member will come to the barn for a tour and tell us how much our efforts meant to them," Ford said.
The boy, then about 4 years old, was just a baby when his father was killed in Afghanistan. Looking through the logbooks, the Soldiers found the horses that carried the boy's father and were able to introduce the boy to them.
"Being able to see the difference that that makes for the loved ones is really the most rewarding part of what we do," Ford said.
It is awe-inspiring to even just watch the horses pass by during a funeral, said Staff Sgt. Christine Baldwin, a squad leader in the platoon.
But to be a part of the caisson team is a wholly unique experience, she said.
"You can't describe it unless you're out there yourself," she said. "To actually be up there on the horse and watch the families and seeing their gratitude, or just being there and having that privilege to take the family to their final resting place is amazing."
It is an honor to pay tribute to those who have served their country, and show the families how much the service and sacrifice of their loved one means to the nation, Sgt. Daniel Miller said.
From the care of the horses and equipment, to the Soldiers' appearance and riding style, every detail is attended to in order to provide the families with the best possible funeral for the departed, he said.
"We're the last things that they are going to see when they take the casket off the wagon or the urn off the wagon, so we want to make sure we do the best that we can for them," Miller said.
STEEPED IN HISTORY
Whether in the snow, rain, cold or heat, the Caisson Platoon is out in Arlington National Cemetery for funerals every day, Mondays through Fridays, except federal holidays, or in the case of dangerous weather or other emergencies.
Using a caisson is steeped in tradition and history, going back to the day when field artillerymen used the caissons to transport 75mm cannon ammunition.
The caissons, which were built in 1918, now carry the remains of those who served the nation with honor and distinction.
Those eligible for a caisson at a military funeral at Arlington include warrant officers and sergeants major, officers of all ranks, those killed in action, valorous award recipients including those who received the Medal of Honor, U.S. presidents, and other special designees, Ford said.
A caisson team consists of seven horses and four riders. Three of the horses hitched to the caisson are unmounted, because the field artillerymen of the day used the off-side horses to carry additional gear, Ford said.
A departed Army or Marine Corps officer in the rank of colonel or above is also afforded the honor of having a caparisoned, or riderless, horse. The horse is led behind the caisson by a member of the platoon.
"It represents the horse of the departed officer, boots are reversed in the stirrups, symbolic of both the officer's last ride and the officer reviewing his troops for one final time," Ford said.
The caparisoned horse is reserved for Army and Marine Corps officers because it is a cavalry tradition. The honor is also given to presidents in their capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Ford said.
UNIQUE MEMBERS OF THE PLATOON
Just as people have unique appearances, personalities and dispositions, so do the horses. There are big horses, average-sized horses; while some are friendly and playful, others can be testy.
The relationships that are built between the horses and the riders are based on mutual respect, and on the personalities of the animals, Ford said.
"The more playful horses will have more people who are partial to them," he said. "Some of the less playful or more irritable horses will actually have as many people that are partial to them, simply because a cranky horse is endearing sometimes."
While the horses might be awry, cranky and irritable in the stables, they are highly trained, work-centric creatures that know exactly when to "turn on" and focus on the mission, he said.
The horses are purchased from auctions in various states including Texas, Nevada, Oklahoma and New Mexico, he said. There is one American Mustang from the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming.
Soldiers switch during the week between being the stable crew and being on the riding team. The horses switch as well, to allow for the animals to get some R&R in the stables and meet visitors who stop by during the public hours in the afternoon.
The platoon members ride the horses with precision, expertise and military exactness. The riding style is unique, and the Army hasn't used it anywhere else since 1948. Soldiers must complete nine weeks of intense training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, for their spot in the Caisson Platoon, Ford said.
The animals are constant, loyal, hard-working partners to the Soldiers. And the Army recognizes that: the Army Caisson Program adopts out horses after they have retired.
On average, the retired horses have served the nation for more than a decade and taken part in thousands of funerals.
"The bond that is forged between the Soldiers and the horses here in the platoon is something that most of us actively seek for the rest of our lives," Ford said.
THE DAY'S SOLEMN DUTY
A ribbon rack on a Soldier's uniform is straightened. Brass stars are polished to perfection on the caisson wagon.
After hours of preparation, it is time for the first caisson team to depart.
Stable crew and riders check the wagon, horses, tack, brass, eye up the Soldiers' uniforms, and even share a quick nuzzle with the horses.
There are two caisson teams -- a white team and a black team -- and each will do up to four funerals a day. All details have been tended to, inspections have been made, and the orders for the day are announced.
Clip. Clop. Clip. Clop.
The sounds of the hooves on the asphalt waft through the quiet morning air here, as the first team, to be followed shortly by the second team, heads out for the funeral mission among the flat spaces and grassy knolls of the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.
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