"Hey, please move that strap forward a little," said Eugene Burks Jr. "Make sure you tack up these horses correctly before you leave, and don't forget to make adjustments while you're in the cemetery."
Every morning, Burks walks through the Caisson stable to help Soldiers make any last minute adjustments with the horses' equipment before a day in the cemetery. Soldiers and horses of the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon [USACP], 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), transport the remains of service members to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery, Va.
It has been Burks's job to ensure the equipment is positioned just right on every horse since he initially joined the USACP in 1981. After retiring from the Army in 1996, Burks was asked to serve in a similar capacity as he did when he was a Soldier.
"It was such a good thing that I was able to come back," said Burks. "It really helped keep some stability here at the barn because many Soldiers eventually are stationed other places after about three years."
Now with more than 30 years with the USACP, Burks continues his duty of creating and maintaining all horse tack for the platoon, while also coordinating the logistics to run a fluid horse barn.
Tack, which is equipment or accessories used on domesticated horses, plays an essential role in not only the appearance of the horse, but the control of them as well.
"We make almost every piece of tack that goes on all of the horses in the barn by hand or machine," said Burks. "If something breaks or wears down on these large animals, we have to replace it quickly before it causes an accident."
Learning to quickly maneuver around these animals to make repairs or adjustments wasn't something Burks was truly comfortable with at first. However, his fear of horses quickly faded into great appreciation and reverence for their jobs in the cemetery.
"I realized the importance of Soldiers and horses and how they look to the fallen Soldiers and their families" said Burks. "I consider it amazing to be part of that."
Burks said appearance has always been important to this prestigious unit, so it is his job to make sure every piece of horse tack used is in good working condition.
"Before the Soldiers leave the barn in the morning, I make sure that the tack that we made is clean, in working order and is positioned correctly on each horse," said Burks. "The standard is important because people look at it and can easily recognize if it is wrong. They taught me the standard when I got here all those years ago, and that hasn't really changed."
Burks said that one of the greatest pleasures of his job is passing these same principles on to the current Soldiers who work in the Caisson barn.
"I enjoy training the new guys and helping them along. Focusing them on how to run this shop helps everything run smoother," said Burks. "I sometimes educate them on life because most of the guys that come here are pretty young. Sometimes they need some advice."
Spc. Phillip Galicia, a laundry, shower and textile repair specialist, said he can't fully express his appreciation for Burks's leadership for the last four years.
"We rely on his 30 years of knowledge of The Old Guard. He knows what right looks like," said Galicia. "Mr. Burks has meant a lot to me and the unit."
Burks handpicked Galicia to come to The Old Guard.
"He recruited me right out of advanced individual training. He told me just how special this unit was, and he was absolutely right," said Galicia. "I have to say that being assigned to The Old Guard and working for Mr. Burks has been one of the most fun and challenging things I have ever done."
There is a mutual understanding between the Soldiers and Burks because of the work environment that Burks has nurtured.
"We joke around because we are pretty close, but we also put in the work," said Burks. "When you work hard together, it really develops that trust and appreciation for one another."
Galicia said he is grateful for everything Burks continues to teach him and the other Soldiers.
"He is involved with the Soldiers like a father to a son," said Galacia. "He is going to take care of you if you need help. He will also tell you when you're wrong. You can still see The Old Guard Soldier in him."
Burks continues today, as he did 30 years ago, walking through the barn checking on Soldiers, horses and their equipment.
"The Old Guard is one of most remarkable units in the world, and I hope to always be a part of it," said Burks. "It offers a great service for Soldiers that have given their lives and that's motivation for me to continue doing my best."