In a fenced training arena on Fort Sam Houston, Staff Sgt. Samuel Rogers listened intently to stable master Jonathan Deely’s instructions before mounting the towering Percheron. A handful of Army unit members wearing dark jeans, black workshirts, and white cowboy hats groomed and rode other horses.
U.S. Army North’s Fifth Army is the home command for the Fort Sam Houston Caisson Section, one of only two active-duty, full-time caisson units in the U.S. Army. The one most people are familiar with is the Old Guard caisson platoon at Arlington National Cemetery.
A caisson is a chest or wagon historically used to carry ammunition. It conveys the casket of the fallen military member, drawn by four harnessed horses.
Unlike the Old Guard caisson, Fort Sam’s caisson unit is relatively new. It was established soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. An Army officer from San Antonio, Lt. Col. Karen Wagner, was killed at the Pentagon and her interment at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery was supported by assets from the Fort Sill Half Section. Fort Sam Houston leadership decided a caisson section would be a valuable addition to the already established Military Honors Platoon.
Deely, a contractor who has worked at the caisson unit for eight years, trains new unit members on all aspects of horsemanship, from equine behavior to how to outfit and ride horses used in a caisson funeral ceremony.
The offices of the Military Honors Caisson Platoon are situated in the old veterinarian building on Fort Sam. The interior of the barn contains 12 stalls, a feed room, and a tool room. Veterinary care is provided by on-post veterinarians and local veterinary hospitals.
Deely’s job is to train the unit’s eight human members, some of whom have little or no riding experience, to ride the Percheron draft horses, which stand as tall as six feet and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. Once they learn horsemanship, unit members must learn to ride the horses as they pull a caisson with the remains of a soldier to his or her final resting place in Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
Deely does this in five to six weeks.
Riders must quickly become attuned to a horse’s temperament, and riders and horses require extensive training to work with the caisson. Horses and riders drill, train, and live together until all are qualified to accomplish the mission.
Deely, who owns a horse ranch in the Hill Country, starts with basic understanding of equine health and behavior.
“My job is to teach these guys how a horse thinks, moves, and communicates,” Deely said. “It’s not a method-based approach, it’s a skills-based one.”
Unlike the Old Guard at Arlington, the Fort Sam caisson unit travels, transporting the horses in trailers to perform the caisson ceremony at locations across Texas, “from Houston to El Paso, south to Langtry on the border,” said Sgt. 1st Class Shawn Nield, the caisson unit’s platoon sergeant and its newest member.
Another difference between Fort Sam’s unit and Arlington’s is their size. The Old Guard has about 60 total personnel. Fort Sam’s Caisson Section typically has only eight members, not including the stable master.
The small unit size at Fort Sam means everyone must be able to perform all the tasks involved in a caisson ceremony. Accordingly, unit members know about every aspect of the caisson unit, from horse care and ridership to the history and tradition behind every part of the caisson ceremony.
To watch a video of a Fort Sam Houston caisson mission, click here.
On average, two to three caisson funerals – and approximately 100 to 150 every year –take place at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery every week. The unit will usually receive about a week’s notice to prepare for the caisson mission.
An extraordinary amount of preparation goes into each quarter-mile procession around the loop road of the cemetery. As long as five hours are required to feed and groom the horses, for riders to get in dress uniform, and to transport the animals from the base to the cemetery. By the time the unit has completed its mission and both riders and horses have recovered, the day can stretch into a seven or eight hours.
“It is a humbling experience for us to render honors to the service member, a final goodbye for their sacrifice given for our country,” Nield said.
History and Tradition Govern the Caisson Procession
It was in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the practice of using a flag to cover the dead as they were taken from the battlefield on a caisson began. The caissons used today are replicas of the 1918 wagons holding ammunition chests, spare wheels, and tools used for 75mm cannons. For the caisson missions, replica caissons are used, modified to create a flat deck as the resting place for the casket.
During a military funeral, the Fort Sam caisson unit uses six horses. In the middle of the procession, there are four horses harnessed in two rows of two to pull the caisson. All four horses are saddled, but only the horses on the left have riders.
A fifth horse follows the caisson and is the riderless horse, also known as a caparisoned horse. That horse is outfitted in an ornamental cavalry saddle, bridle, and saddle blanket, complete with cavalry sword and riding boots reversed in the stirrups, to represent a fallen leader looking back on his troops for the last time.
By tradition in military funeral honors, a caparisoned horse is only used to follow the casket of an Army or Marine Corps officer whose final rank was equivalent to a colonel or above, or the casket of a president.
The sixth and final horse is the lead horse in front of the other five, typically the most experienced horse to help guide the entire caisson procession.