Media Roundtable on continued suspension of caisson operations

By U.S. Army Public AffairsApril 12, 2024

Continued Suspension of Caisson Operations MRT


Major General Trevor Bredenkamp: Hey, thanks and good morning everyone. Appreciate your time today. Thanks so much for joining us. Since I took command last summer, equine health and caisson operations at Arlington have been at the top of my priority list and they remain there today. And I personally recognize and appreciate the impact that this halt on caisson operations has had and continues to have on military families and veterans. We are leveraging a growing network of national international equine experts to shape requirements and planning for future support and execution of the ANC caisson mission. And as a result, we're heeding their advice on continuing the suspension of Caisson support as additional time is required to ensure that we can safely resume operations. Since the suspension began last April-May timeframe, the U.S. Army has made significant progress in implementing its rehabilitative plan to build a sustainable program for the Caisson detachment. The life, health, and safety of the herd continues to be our priority and we are making progress. Our team, supported by equine professionals, have delved deeper into the modernization needs of the herd to ensure the success of our long term plan to address the health and well-being of our equine force. We are actively investing in modernized, lightweight caisson, improved saddle and tack, and expert farrier care to prioritize the holistic health of our horses. Bottom line is that we built a team of expert support, one that we did not have prior to the suspension. That's both within the Army with academia and civilian equine experts that will strengthen our ability to build and sustain a world class program the U.S. Army caisson detachment needs and our fallen service members and their families deserve. And with that, I'll turn it over to Mr. Ray Alexander of Arlington National Cemetery, and I look forward to your questions. Thank you.

Ray Alexander: General Bredenkamp, good morning. This is Ray Alexander, superintendent at Arlington National Cemetery. I also want to thank you for your time this morning. The continued focus and prioritization of our working horses is important, and I'm glad we're taking the time this morning to share these updates. We do acknowledge the ongoing impact that the extended suspension of caisson operations will have on families as they look at their loved ones to rest. We understand and empathize with your disappointment and emotions. And while we are fully committed to supporting these families, we also need to continue to prioritize the life, health and safety of the caisson platoon horses. We support the Army's decision and believe this extended suspension is the best course of action to enable our working horses to safely continue their sacred duty of escorting our nation's heroes to their final resting place. This extended suspension will only impact those families who are scheduled to receive military funeral honors with escort service. For context, we conduct an average of 27 to 30 funerals each day, Monday through Friday. Approximately six to eight of those services include military funeral honors with escort, which, when available, includes the caisson. Since the suspension, we have continued to conduct all these services without the caisson. In other words, we have no families who are currently awaiting their funeral service due to the suspension. I want to again emphasize that the only thing that has changed is the method of conveyance of remains to the gravesite. We will continue using the family contracted funeral home hearse for casketed remains and our cemetery representative’s government vehicle for cremated remains. The suspension will not impact any other elements of military funeral honors to include the service band, escort platoon, firing party, body bearers, and the bugler. A riderless horse will continue to trail the hearse or government vehicle in services for Army and Marine Corps officers, Colonel and above, if available. Again, I want to assure you the level of dignity, compassion and precision offered to each and every family will remain uncompromised as families schedule to lay their loved ones to rest. We will continue to keep them informed on the status of the caisson platoon, and we look forward to the return of the horse drawn caissons within Arlington National Cemetery. Thank you.

Jason Waggoner: Thank you, gentlemen, for those comments. I'll go ahead and open up the questions first with Lita Baldor, and then I'll go to Mary Walsh.

Lita Baldor: Hi. Thanks for doing this. I have a couple specific questions. First, where are the horses now? Are there any in the area because you're still using the riderless horse? How many do you have? Where are they now? You know, how are they being cared for? And then a broader question. Do you believe it will be possible in the coming months, weeks, or at all ever to restart this? What is your estimate right now on when the Army would be able to restart it, or do you think this is probably not going to happen for quite a long time?

MGB: Lita, this is Trevor Bredenkamp. Thanks again for that question. And I'll go with in order that you asked them. So right now, we currently have 42 horses in the herd. We--I think we have talked about a facility that we have contracted. It's called the Northern Virginia Equine Center. It's out in Aldi, Virginia, about 60 miles west of D.C. And so the majority of our horses reside in that location. So we no longer have any horses in any rehabilitative facilities. So that ended about January--it ended at the end of January 2024. So all 42, unless they are on mission, and when I say mission, conducting comparison horse support inside of Arlington National Cemetery. They're at the Northern Virginia Equine Center, which is a contract facility staffed by 17 professionals. It has 47 stalls, more than 50 acres of turnout space, and they provide holistic healthcare, training, and conditioning for those horses. We rotate horses into the stables at Fort Meyer. Again, just the comparison horses right now. So we'll have two to three horses in the stables, but they'll only do a week or so at a time on Fort Meyer, and then we'll rotate them back out and replace them with other comparison horses to accomplish that mission. So again, two locations we have horses stabled now is the Northern Virginia Equine Center out in western West Virginia, and then here at Fort Myer. We also have some horses that are undergoing training with a facility in southern Florida, but that's under professional care and training. In terms of resumption. So that's a great question, and I wish I could give you a definitive answer. Last year when we talked, we said, hey, this likely will be a year. And we learned a lot over the last year. We learned that we had to retire three times as many horses as we initially anticipated. And that is really, like over half the herd that we had. And so we've undertaken efforts to work with the American Association of Equine Practitioners and the U.S. Equestrian Federation to learn more about how to run a sustainable equestrian program. You know a year has gone by. Fort Myer, we had a lot of pasture land. You can take the horses out, they could run around and pasture. We no longer have that pasture land because it has been consumed by other construction facilities. And so we have every intention to resume operations. I can't give you a week or month or estimate, but it's requirements based. So we need to make sure we've got the right facilities. The caisson stables we have at Fort Myer are over 100 years old. Congress has appropriated additional funding for us to renovate those facilities, and that takes time. And so we want to make sure that when we return to full operations, that we have the right facilities that are looking out for the health and welfare of the herd as well. We are making a lot of progress in our caisson renovation in our saddle and tackle. We've enlisted the aid of master saddlers from a variety of different companies to come out and help identify improvements that are historical in nature but modernized in construction. And so, we--the Army is committed, the Secretary of the Army is committed to returning to caisson support within the Arlington National Cemetery. But we want that to be conditions based as we move forward. I hope that answers----

LB: General, just a quick follow up. Is it safe then to say months to years versus in the coming within this next year?

MGB: Again, I think it's hard to say. We are making--we've made a lot of progress. We've got to increase the size of the herd, so we've got to procure horses. That has proven to be a little more challenging than we initially anticipated because we have specific requirements in terms of breed and temperament, and so we've got to rebuild that herd. Two years ago, we had 60 plus horses in the herd, and so we got to procure those. I think years with an s is not, I think it's--I think we will be able to return much sooner than years, but certainly we're not talking in the next few weeks as a delay. You know, it's going to take some time.

Jason Waggoner: Thank you for that, sir. We'll go next to Mary Walsh and then to Jonathan Lehrfeld.

Mary Walsh: Hi. Thank you for taking the time to do this. Can you talk about what your budget has been for this, how much you have invested in this so far, how much Congress has appropriated? And you talk about the size of the herd is now 42 horses, but half of them have been retired. How many new horses have you brought in? And, you know, so how short are you on the equine side of this? But if you could talk about that, please.

MGB: Yeah, sure, Mary, thanks for those questions. So I would tell you, from a fiscal standpoint, from a resourcing standpoint, we have not been challenged with resourcing. Congress has provided, you know, they provided a plus up in `23. The Army has put operations and maintenance and facilities resourcing in FY24, which the Congress just passed the appropriation assigned into law not too long ago. And then in the POM in the five year plan, we have additional funding, historically high funding, compared to what the caisson platoon has had over the past decades. And so I would prefer not to go into specific numbers of dollar bills----

MW: Can you give us those numbers? Sorry to interrupt.

MGB: So, in FY23, I just want to make sure I got my FYs correct. We spent about $6 million on a variety of things, and that's improved hay, feed and nutrition. That was rehabilitative care. That was procurement of additional horses. That was--one minor correction. So in FY 23, it was about $7 million total. And that encompassed all those things I just mentioned. So the rehabilitative care, the improved feed and nutrition, procurement of horses, transportation of those horses here to Fort Myer and the Northern Virginia Equine Center. That's clinician care. That's Marion DuPont Virginia Tech Medical Center. Higher level medical care that was required. And also, I think that pretty much covers the--those are the big ticket items in that for operations and maintenance. And then we procured about 18 new horses since last summer. So since June of `23, we've procured about 18 new horses from a variety of different locations.

Jason Waggoner: Okay, thank you for that, sir. We'll go to Jonathan----

MW: Can I just do one quick follow up? So what is the holdup if you have new horses? Is it because you don't have the caisson and the new tack?

MGB: No, it's--Mary, that's a great question. And it's certainly not because of the new wagon. So we've actually gotten two of our wagons back from the developmental command that are reduced weight. So about 2000 pounds instead of 2600. This month we'll receive the newly designed wagon that will be about 1500 pounds. But I think the challenge really has been, we procured a variety of horses from different locations. Building teams of horses is not as easy as just picking six of them and hooking them up to a wagon. So, we--I think one of the seminal moments we've had is in--we spent the last six or eight months building a network of equine professionals from around the country. And so just recently we've been talking to horse hitch experts from the Midwest and from Florida. And they've advised us on the best way to train to select the horses for the team and the best way to train these horses. So the rehabilitation of the horses, so we say we have 42 horses in the herd, as you mentioned. So the rehabilitation, we thought when we started this in June of last year was going to take 60 to 90 days. In reality, it took almost eight months for a variety of those horses. And for the ones that went out to Fox Hall, as an example. We sent 25 through rehabilitation, 14 of those went straight into retirement. And only 11 of those are with the herd. And so we haven't had the horses together in order to train them, in order to resume operations. Another piece of information that we've learned through talking to the experts is the work-rest cycle. You know, when we, prior to April of `23, a horse, Ray Alexander mentioned six to eight funerals a day. So those horse teams, there were two teams, two squads on mission a day. And that they were each doing four funerals, three to four funerals a day, and that was every 2 hours. Well, what we've learned is that the more appropriate work rest cycle for horses is no more than 5 hours under saddle and tack in a day. Right. So that reduces the amount of funerals we can support with those squads. And so as we've gone back to reassess what our herd looks like, we've said, okay, a squad of horses can only do two funerals a day. So if we want to get back to the historic level or what the demand--historic demand has been, which is about six a day, then we need to have three horses on mission or correction, three squads on mission at any given time. That means we gotta be able to rotate them out every week, week on, week off. So that requires six squads of horses. So, when we talk about resuming operations, do we have a squad of horses that could pull a caisson right now? Absolutely. But that squad of horses cannot do six funerals a day in Arlington in perpetuity week after week after week. We've learned about the need to rotate horses out of the work cycle, out to a facility. And our facility right now is the Northern Virginia Equine Center. And that facility’s specialized training. They've got hot walkers, they've got water treadmills, they've got covered training arenas. They've got pasture turnout space. And so in order to return, what we really need is we need to be sustainable, which means we need to have a minimum of four squads of horses trained and equipped appropriately so that we can have--and that gets us to basically four funerals supported daily in Arlington National Cemetery. But I'll hold there if you have any additional questions on that answer.

Jason Waggoner: Okay, sir, we're going to go ahead and move on to Jonathan Lehrfeld and then Drew Lawrence. Go ahead, Jonathan.

Jonathan Lehrfeld: Hi. Thanks for making time for us for this. I wanted to ask about how many families you and the team have already notified about this extended suspension and how many you plan to notify, given that there's not an exact timetable about when this might end at the moment.

RA: Hey, Jonathan, this is Ray Alexander. Thanks for the question. We have not yet externally announced this extension to the suspension. We will be doing it, though, shortly after this call, and the messaging will also be placed on our website. Right now, we have scheduled military full honor services out through July, and we will beginning next week, scheduling out into August, and they will all be this modified service that we've been talking about. So throughout this past 10 months, we've had no reduction in number of services conducted before the pause and now through the pause. We've maintained our daily wait. So there are no families waiting for a service due to the suspension. Families are waiting, scheduled for a variety of reasons. It could be military resources, family preferences, the nature of the remains, et cetera. But we'll begin the notification. We'll begin the notification broadly shortly after this, and as we start scheduling for August, we'll be starting to inform them of the extension going forward. Thank you.

JL: Very short follow up. And again, I know you started mentioning the numbers at the top of this call, but approximately how many families do you have scheduled through July, and how many would you have scheduled through August that could be impacted by this?

RA: Okay. Thanks for the question. Right now, we have roughly 700 services either scheduled or to be scheduled, but there are no families that are waiting for a service due to the suspension or the extension. So the number is 700 today, but that number will continue to be roughly six to 700 a month as we get new calls in.

Jason Waggoner: Thank you, sir. We'll move over to Drew Lawrence. Go ahead, Drew.

Drew Lawrence: Hey, good morning. Thanks for making time for this. So, two years ago, the facilities at Fort Myer and Belvoir accounted for less than the 20% of recommended space for, at that time, around 60-horse herd. Now, obviously, you have 42 now, which changes that percentage. But my question is, what is being done to ensure that when the horses do come back, there's enough space for them to comfortably live?

MGB: Yeah. Hey, Drew, this is Trevor Bredenkamp. Thanks for that question, and you're exactly right. So that's been one of the main focal points that I've been working on over the last nine months or ten months. And so, if you recall, back in June of last year, we were, looking at how to expand. We looked at Belvoir, wholly inadequate for the size of the turnout space we needed. We had worked with the Bureau of Land Management to get about 10 acres of turnout, six usable acres in close proximity to Belvoir. What we have learned over the last, eight, nine months, is that we require not just the one to one acre of land to sustain turnout, but we need training area if we're going to train--condition and train horses at a facility under hitch, so six horses under hitch on a wagon, we need to have a facility that allows for the health of the herd and also the training of the herd. So we have been working through a process. It's called the Major Land Acquisition Process, and it's currently with the Corps of Engineers to solicit potential locations to identify potential opportunities within the 50 to 60 miles radius of Washington, D.C., that will support a larger herd size. And so, we, as I mentioned, we've got the Northern Virginia Equine Center that has about 52 acres of turnout, and it has 47 stalls. So we are evaluating a variety of options right now. So I think about it, you think about ammunition plants, right. So we have government owned government operator. We have government owned contract operator. We have contract owned contract operator. So right now, the NEC, the NEC facility, is a contract owned, contract operating facility. And so we are investigating the possibility of this major land acquisition. And we're also looking at which would be more of a either a go-go or go-co type operation. And we're looking at the possibility of maintaining a contract owned, contract operated facility. But the reality is that Belvoir, while some folks would say Belvoir, has a lot of space available on it, when we went to the environment--we went in deep on the environmental assessment and impacts on Fort Belvoir proper. And you talked about, drainage and runoff and eagle nesting areas and unexploded ordnance and things like that. It just--it became very cost prohibitive to be able to expand the facility, the relatively small facility we had at Fort Belvoir, to be able to accommodate a much larger herd. And as I mentioned, Fort Myer, we have, like, 0.6 acres of turnout on Fort Myer, and we're not going to get any more at Fort Myer. So we need to renovate the facilities here so that they are world class facilities for the horses to work out of when they're on mission. And then we need a holistic health and fitness facility, you know, somewhere in the not too far away that can support horse health for the herd.

DL: And just a quick follow on that. So just to be clear, that space has not been sorted out yet. And the second part of this question, one of the issues that was brought up in the original veterinary report two years ago, was leader turnover. Over the past several years, going back a decade, there have been plans to try to help build a sustainable program. But leaders turn out every 18 months to two years. And there wasn't that continuity that was in place to help these plans get executed. What is happening now to ensure that there's continuity when, you know, you leave, down to when, you know, that squad leader leaves at the Caisson?

MGB: Yeah, no, another great question, Drew, and that's exactly what we've been wrestling with, to be honest with you, is what is the future force structure? What is the right structure for the future? Right. And so we've looked at things like, if you think of the U.S. Army Band Pershing’s Own. Right. They are a unique MOS, and they come to the organization and they stay for their entire career. So, we've talked about, is that a possible--is there a possibility for some positions within the Caisson detachment to be a specific military occupational specialty where those folks come and they stay for their entire career? That's an option. Another option is do we--for our horse care folks, this goes back to the government owned government operator or contract operator operated, right, is it possible for us to have Army Soldiers responsible for caring for the horses in perpetuity because of the rotation that you talked about? So again, we either have to have them stay longer, we have to look at expanded government department of the Army civilian structure that mirrors some of these equine facilities, or we have to look at an expanded contract that is focused on the care of the horses. And so, as I've talked to the team here and we've looked at it, it's like going from a caisson platoon to a provisional caisson detachment, you know we have a detachment--you have a couple of elements. The detachment potentially has a ceremonial component to it, which is the rotational Soldiers that come in and get basic horsemanship skills, get some academic areas. And that's something I'd like to touch on kind of briefly, is we're leveraging--we have not conducted basic horsemanship training in and of ourselves. We actually we sent a Soldier out to the U.S. Park Police training program recently. We're using a local stable that over the next three months, every Soldier that's in that caisson detachment is going to go through a civilian run basic horsemanship course. We're working with academia to develop a basic horsemanship academic program. And so as we look at revising this into the future, it's okay, what are basic horsemanship qualifications? What are intermediate horsemanship qualifications and what are advanced you horsemanship doing qualifications? We are also in the process of bringing on a couple of highly qualified experts, one at my level and one at the caisson detachment level, who are--I can't discuss who they are right now because we haven't finalized the employment, but they are nationally and internationally renowned experts in the field, and they are going to help inform us as to what the right structure is, what the right mix is of civilian-military based on their expertise and what it takes to run a world class equestrian facility.

Jason Waggoner: Okay. Thank you, sir, for that. That is all the time we have for questions. I'd like to turn it over to General Bredenkamp for any closing comments he may have.

MW: Can I just ask one quick question? In terms of timing, should we say the suspension is indefinite at this point? Indefinite suspension? I'm just trying to find the word for how to describe this suspension timeline.

MGB: Yeah Mary. Thank--thanks for that question. I mean, I struggle with this every day. And I know, I understand the impact that it has on the nation, really. And I don't think indefinite is it. I think it's conditions based. I mean, we are working--I mean, I know it seems like we had a year and we didn't get there, but I can tell you that we have--this has continued to be on my top priority list as the commander for the military of Washington. And so I think indefinite is maybe paints a bleaker estimate than what's out there. It's conditions based and we're moving forward. As soon as we can restart, we are going to. But again, we don't want to restart with minimal capability and then have something happen and we have to walk that back. But I think it's, and again, Secretary--this weighs heavily on her mind as well. And so I know she is committed to returning to caisson support in Arlington National Cemetery for all of the services, but I know it's not an indefinite suspension.

Jason Waggoner: Thank you, sir. Do you have any closing comments for the group today?

MGB: Yeah, sure. Thanks. Thanks so much. And again, I just want to thank you all for making time to be here today. I know there's a lot of things going on in the world, and so this is important to us, and I know it's important to a lot of folks, not only here in the Washington, D.C. area, but across the country. This extension is necessary. And as I mentioned before, we have to ensure a sustainable program in order to maintain the trust with the American people. We're going to continue to leverage the advice of this growing network of national and international equine experts as we work towards resuming operations. And I will say that that's one thing we didn't have, you know, six months ago is we did not have this team of international experts that we were relying upon for their expertise, who do this every day, who compete internationally and nationally. And so we're going to continue to leverage their expertise and make our--you know, the way ahead informed by the equestrian--the greater equestrian enterprise. But the time and effort we spend, you know, now, to resume caisson operations in the safest manner possible and continue the sacred duty of escorting our nation's heroes to their final resting place for years to come is at the forefront of our mind. We'll continue to keep you informed about our efforts, and we really look forward to returning to full horse drawn caissons at Arlington National Cemetery. Thanks again for your time today, and thanks for what you do.

Jason Waggoner: All right, sir. Thank you for that. And thank everybody for attending today. Thanks to our panel members for your time. Again, if anybody has any follow up questions, please send those to OCPA and we'll get responses to you as soon as possible. Thank you all again and enjoy the rest of your day.