By Staff Sgt. Corey BaltosOctober 16, 2012
FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas - A silent procession of Soldiers and horses make their way through the paths of the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery. Their fellow Soldiers stand at attention with their rifles at order arms, waiting. The only sound is from the muffled hooves of the horses, and the wheels of the caisson they are pulling.
The Soldiers, sitting ramrod straight on their horses and marching next to the caisson, as well as the horses themselves, are conscious that this is no ordinary ride. They have the honor of carrying a fellow Soldier to his final place of rest, where he will lay with his fellow honored dead.
The solemn dignity provided by these Soldiers during the ceremonies is no accident. They train constantly for this duty -- they are the men and women assigned to the Military Funeral Honors platoon and the Caisson section of U.S. Army North.
"We provide military funerals and honors for veterans and active-duty Soldiers," said Sgt. Titus Mathai, Military Funeral Honors Platoon, Headquarters Support Company, Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, U.S. Army North. "We are responsible for 58 counties in South Texas; so, on an average day, we conduct four to six funerals; and on a heavy day, that can increase to six or eight."
There are different types of honors afforded to the military service member or veteran.
"If the service member died on active duty, regardless of rank, they are entitled to be buried with full military honors with a caisson," said Sgt. Jimmy Sandoval, Fort Sam Houston Caisson Platoon. "If they are a retired veteran, they are entitled to full military honors and a caisson if they are a sergeant major or a colonel or general. All others are authorized a two-person uniformed detail to present the burial flag to the next of kin and a bugler."
While the honors platoon provides Soldiers for military funerals across south Texas, the caissons are only used for funerals at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery due to the logistical requirements of moving the horses and caissons. There was, however, one exception.
"When Sgt. Maj. William Wooldridge, the first Sergeant Major of the Army, died in March of this year, we sent the caisson and horses to his funeral at Fort Bliss," said Sandoval. "All of our horses are named after former Sergeants Major of the Army, so it was fitting that they pull the caisson."
Many of the Soldiers assigned to the military funeral honors and caisson platoons came here as part of a compassionate reassignment.
"I arrived at Fort Sam two and a half years ago as part of a compassionate reassignment for my son," said Sandoval. "I started in the military funeral honors platoon as part of the ground team. About five months ago, the caisson platoon asked for volunteers and I volunteered."
Sandoval, like most of his fellow caisson Soldiers, had no prior experience with horses. He did, however, spend two months learning to ride the horses before he moved on to controlling the caisson.
"My initial training consisted of learning to give commands and control the horse," he said. "Once
I was comfortable with that, I moved onto horsemanship and different riding styles."
The Soldiers riding style is not the relaxed style of someone going on a pleasure ride. They learn to sit erect, in a forward position on a McClellan saddle.
"The McClellan saddle was designed by Gen. George McClellan and was used by the Army as their cavalry saddle through World War II," said Sandoval. "I have been told by people who have ridden other types of saddles, that McClellans are very uncomfortable."
Then, once he was comfortable on the horse, he started learning the different parts of caisson control. Four to six horses, harnessed in pairs, are used to pull a caisson. However, only the near or left-hand horses are ridden so the rider has to control not only the horse he is riding but the one on the right of him as well, which is known as the "off horse."
"Horsemanship is important in this detail because you can't control two horses until you can control one," said Sandoval.
Historically, only infantry Soldiers were part of the MFH and caisson platoons; however, many of the Soldiers currently serving in the platoon here represent a wide variety of military jobs.
"A lot of the Soldiers we have had in the Military Funeral platoon were 90-day augmentees, and they represent a variety of MOSs," said Mathai.
Right now, none of the members of the caisson platoon are augmentees but are assigned Soldiers.
"It takes a while to train someone to ride a horse and control a caisson," said Sandoval. "So, all of the Soldiers assigned to the caisson platoon are here for at least a year."
Currently, all of the Soldiers in the caisson platoon are male, but that may change.
"Historically all caisson platoon members here and at the Old Guard have been men because the platoon was made up of infantry Soldiers," said Sandoval. "However, we currently have Soldiers in other military occupational specialties so it is possible that we will have female caisson riders.
The important thing is that the Soldier is comfortable around horses."
Regardless of military specialty, serving as a representative of Fort Sam Houston and the Army fills the Soldiers with a sense of pride.
"It is a truly honorable detail," said Mathai.