If they ask, he will make it. Chances are, if a noncommissioned officer pitches an idea for a new piece of Army load carriage to Rich Landry, the equipment designer is going to turn it into something tangible.
A former Pathfinder in the 82nd Airborne Division, Landry understands the struggle of NCOs on the battlefield who are often weighed down with body armor, weapons and other
equipment. During a visit in late June to Fort Belvoir, Va., Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Daniel B. Allyn reiterated the Army’s desire to lighten the Soldiers’ load during a visit to Program Executive Office Soldier. “I appreciate what you are focused on … better kit and lighter weight,” Allyn told PEO Soldier staff members.
It’s a challenge Landry embraces.
“The beauty of what we’re able to do here is a Soldier comes to us with an idea, and in a very short period of time, they have something in their hands,” said Landry, individual designer in Load Carriage Systems, Product Manager Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment, Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass. “Soldiers leave here with at least a concept. It might be a 60 percent solution, and it might be a 90 percent solution if we’re lucky. But typically the 60 percent solution we are happy with right out of the starting gate.
“And then we evaluate,” Landry said. “We will have 50 of them built, and we let Soldiers tweak it. We do the tweaks to it very quickly once again, get something back in Soldiers’ hands and they will look at it and say, ‘That’s good.’ Then, we can go to test with it. We may have 100 of them built, either [at Natick] or by a small manufacturer. Then, a company-size evaluation [follows].”
The rows of backpacks on his office walls serve as inspiration to the former Pathfinder, who often goes to the field to survey Soldiers about the military gear in use. The walls
display backpacks used over the years by the Army, including the ALICE, all-purpose lightweight individual carrying equipment, pack. The ALICE pack was adopted by the military in 1973. The MOLLE, modular lightweight load-carrying equipment, system was due to replace it in the early 2000s. However, some units still prefer this style over the modern MOLLE pack.
“I always keep old stuff on the wall because I learn so much from it,” said Landry, dubbed “Pack Man” by comedian Larry the Cable Guy who visited Natick’s Soldier System Center in 2012 for his “Only in America” series. “You just never know. There might have been a time where they were using that effectively, and it’s good to look at that.”
How he works
Landry recently heard from the 82nd Airborne Division that Soldiers needed a pack that could carry essential equipment for airborne operations.
Out of that feedback came the MOLLE 4000, a 4,000-cubic-inch rucksack that uses a frame out of the U.S. Marine Corps inventory as a foundation. In fact, Landry had also worked on that pack for the Marines. The MOLLE 4000 is in the testing phase, and airborne units may receive the new pack in fiscal year 2017.
The MOLLE 4000 “is really similar to some of these older packs, but it does a good job of transferring the load,” Landry said. “One of the things that’s popular about this pack is it looks very similar to some of these old ones. A lot of Soldiers love the old stuff. You can’t pry the ALICE pack out of many Soldiers’ hands; they love it.”
Speed and simplicity are key points for Soldiers.
“We can take all the good points of these [older Army backpacks], take the science that Natick is so good at, and put it all together,” Landry said. “That’s really what our focus has been for the past 15 years on backpack technology — it’s transferring some load and getting it off the shoulders and onto the hips.”
Contributions from NCOs
NCO feedback is extremely valuable to Landry and what he does.
“A lot of what we do is very, kind of, ‘stubby pencil’ — we listen to Soldiers, we write it down and look at what we think it needs to be and what we need to happen when we build it,” Landry said.
NCO input comes in different forms for Landry, whether it comes through the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center’s Public Affairs Office, Operational Forces Interface Group outreach efforts in the field or by walking through Landry’s door during a tour at Natick.
“We have an absolute open-door policy for anybody in uniform,” Landry said. “You come in anytime, and we will listen.”
Plenty of feedback also comes during temporary duty assignments to military installations.
“Whenever we travel to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, or Fort Benning, Georgia, etc., there’s always this kind of exchange process,” Landry said. “We will do it through surveys or get Soldiers in a room and say, ‘What’s wrong with this?’ ‘What kind of problems are you seeing with this backpack?’ ‘We’ve had this thing fielded for X amount of years, how can we fix it?’ ‘How can we improve on it?’ Because that’s my job every day — fix stuff, improve, improve, improve. Everything can be improved. Nothing is perfect until we try and try and try, and keep on trying.”
Where it all started
Landry is extremely grateful for the sewing skills he picked up as a young infantryman. Those skills came in handy when he found himself modifying military equipment.
“I was that young Soldier who was changing stuff, who was reusing 550 parachute cord and 100 mph duct tape and showing [others] what I could do to change stuff,” he said.
“I have the best job, and I tell that to everybody,” Landry said. “You never know what you are going to be working on. I travel a lot. I have deployed to Iraq twice. I have deployed to Afghanistan. This is where you get all your good information. This is where you learn. That’s what it’s all about.”
Inspiration often strikes on the spot. While on deployment, Landry often takes photographs of unique ways that Soldiers are carrying or using military equipment.
“We really have to get out as much as we can and see that stuff,” he said. “Sometimes we’re thrown a curve like, ‘They’re carrying what? They’re carrying how? Wait a minute. We have got to get on top of that. We’ve got to figure out a way to do that.’ Sometimes that’s just how it works.”
The MOLLE pack can be credited to Soldiers, Landry said. It “came from learning from Soldiers, because what Soldiers put things through you can’t model in a laboratory,” he said.
“What Soldiers put [their equipment] through is amazing — airborne operations, air assault operations, heavy vehicle use,” Landry said. “Things get driven over. Things get ripped off the side of vehicles in the night when two vehicles pass — on a road sign, on a telephone pole.”
That’s why Army equipment has to be durable and be able to withstand the extreme conditions of Soldiers’ missions.
“We [at Natick] make a difference, and that’s the beauty of it,” Landry said. “Every morning I turn on the news, and I see Soldiers deployed who are wearing stuff that I designed. So the job satisfaction is huge. Everything a Soldier wears is done here, and we all touch it. It’s fun and meaningful.”
After an Army Times article detailed the seven-day workout plan for Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey, he got a lot of comments telling him, “That’s not PRT.”
Dailey has also heard Soldiers using their dislike of Army Physical Readiness Training as an excuse for not exercising. During a recent interview with the NCO Journal, Dailey made it clear that he believes in PRT, but that PRT is just the beginning of staying physically fit. Dailey said he does his workout routine in addition to PRT to maintain his fitness for the things he has needed to do throughout his career as an infantryman.
“I think PRT is actually very good, and it’s proved a success in our training environment,” Dailey said. “We’ve reduced injuries, and we’ve increased physical fitness scores coming out of basic training and AIT. What I need units to understand is PRT is not the end. … We shouldn’t be blaming PRT for our failure to have success in physical fitness. It’s a tool to use in achieving that success. … PRT is not the problem; 6:30 to 9 [a.m.] is the problem. We’ve failed the sacred hour. We need to get that back. It’s something that’s not going to take months; it’s not going to take years. Leaders can change this tomorrow morning. All they have to do is find a flag, wait for the music to go up, salute it and start getting after it.”
Dailey agrees with concerns that there should be stricter consequences for failing the Army Physical Fitness Test, and he said there will be stricter consequences as the Army continues to implement STEP (Select, Train, Educate, Promote).
“When we moved into Select, Train, Educate, Promote about two and a half years ago, we made physical fitness a critical part of succeeding in your institutional training experience,” Dailey said. “So if you go to your institutional training experience now and fail the APFT, you will get a derogatory [DA Form] 1059, which will remain in your records. Previously, that was not true. You could fail your school, and then when you passed, that 1059 would come out. It stays in there now. That’s critically important, because when we look for promotion we need to see the whole Soldier concept. So now with STEP, you have to go to your institutional training experience before you can get promoted. It’s a gate. So we’ve said that noncommissioned officers need to be promoted because they’re certified across all three leadership development domains, and now that’s going to be true with STEP. So until you’ve completed your selection, your training in your organization, your education through self-development, and your institutional experience, then and only then will you be able to be promoted. Physical fitness is a key and critical part of that.”
Recently, Dailey announced that the new Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report would be delayed until 2016. Dailey expressed complete confidence in noncommissioned officers adapting to the changes in the coming NCOER, but he said it was necessary to slow the process down to make sure the NCOER is implemented correctly.
“We have to get this right,” Dailey said. “We worked really hard on the new Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report. It is an excellent product. But how we roll it out and how we make it applicable to our noncommissioned officers is essential to the move forward. It’s OK if we slow down to take the time to make sure we train and educate the force on how to appropriately do it. We need buy-in from all the leaders here and across the Army, because this is intended to fix our Noncommissioned Officers Evaluation Report. So I’m not concerned about the Noncommissioned Officer Evaluation Report; it’s the right way to go. But I am concerned that we make sure that we get it right as we roll it out to the Army. And we’re going to do just that.”
Because the Army as an organization is so large, it has suffered from moving people administratively instead of really managing talent, Dailey said. Though it will be difficult, Dailey hopes leaders can begin to be more involved in some of those decisions.
“We’re a leadership organization,” Dailey said. “I want leaders involved in that. That doesn’t mean leaders will control every facet about where someone PCSes or where they’re going to stay or extending them. But I do need leadership involvement with regard to managing the knowledge, skills and attributes needed to move an individual to the appropriate position that maximizes the capabilities of the organization and strengthens the mission of the United States Army. That’s complex stuff. As big as we are, that’s very complex and very hard to do. So as we move forward, my senior enlisted counsel will work on doing that. Of course, a lot of that will occur at the senior noncommissioned officer ranks. But internal to the organization, I need talent management from the perspective of, ‘I have to give back to the Army sometimes. I have to invest in the future of the Army by sending our young men and women to school to enhance their performance.’ Sometimes that takes sacrifice from a unit. Maybe they’re going to miss a unit field training problem. But what’s more important? Is it more important to invest in that noncommissioned officer for the future or just that two-week field training exercise?”
At the NCO Solarium in May at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Dailey expressed concern about how some Soldiers are behaving on social media. “When Soldiers harass, put [damaging] things on the Internet, they are not in keeping with the honor, tradition and the stewardship of the profession,” he said.
Dailey told the NCO Journal he thinks NCOs can solve the problem without needing new rules and regulations in place. He wants NCOs to have an attitude of “Not in My Squad.”
“It sounds very simplistic, and that’s exactly what I want it to be,” Dailey said. “I want noncommissioned officers to know we trust them, because this is about trust. Trust runs both ways, up and down the chain of command. I want them to understand that we do trust you. We trust you with the lives of … the young men and women that we’ve given you. We’ve bestowed the greatest honor the American society can give to one individual and that is to lead those men and women into combat. That same trust applies when we’re back in garrison. More accurately, there’s no such thing as combat leadership. There’s no such thing as garrison leadership. There’s something called military leadership and Army leadership. It exists regardless of where we are and what we do.”
Every Soldier a billboard
Another topic of discussion that began at the NCO Solarium was the effectiveness of Army branding campaigns. Dailey said he wants Soldiers to see that what is more important than the slogans of “Army Strong” or “Army of One” is the everyday effect a Soldier has walking around his or her community. Dailey wants NCOs to know they are walking billboards for the Army.
“My billboard has and will always say Army Strong,” Dailey said. “I encourage leaders to think about how they are going to paint their own billboard for Soldiers. What is it going to say? You have so much influence on what that billboard says. It can affect whether a Soldier stays in the Army or they transition. It’s critically important that our nation clearly understands and knows that we will always be the organization that is most trusted in America. It takes a lot of billboards to maintain that. It takes a lot of hard work as well. But I always ask this: What do you want your billboard to say? What does it say today? What is it going to say tomorrow?”
Working on their personal billboards and striving to be the best will also help Soldiers have a better chance of staying in the Army as it downsizes, Dailey said. He offered his advice to Soldiers and NCOs looking to take charge of their careers.
“I’ll tell you that you can start first and foremost by listening to your noncommissioned officer every day,” Dailey said. “Do good PT and keep yourself physically fit. When you get the opportunity to go to a military school, stay in it and study hard. Strive to be in the top 10 percent of every school you go to. You should want to, if you want to maintain that edge over your peers. Those are the things you have to go after.”
Before administering the oath of office to Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey, Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Ray Odierno explained what it is he believes Dailey will bring to the office.
The general said the first time he met Dailey, the noncommissioned officer had been a platoon sergeant. Subsequently, he served as a battalion sergeant major, brigade sergeant major, and division sergeant major. Dailey also has in-depth institutional experience, Odierno said, having served as the command sergeant major at TRADOC.
“He brings this broad experience of both understanding the institutional side as well as the tactical and operational side,” Odierno said. “In my mind, there is no one more qualified to take on the responsibilities and the challenges our Army faces in the future.”
The general named three such challenges, saying they are concerns he thinks about every day. He said he believes that Dailey will be able to help address those challenges, as did Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III before him.
First, he said, is the continued commitment of Soldiers across the globe — as many as 140,000 Soldiers are now deployed or forward stationed. “It’s our responsibility to ensure they have the resources and tools necessary to do their jobs. And that we develop NCOs … so they are able to lead our Soldiers anywhere.”
Secondly, he said, is the downsizing of the Army. “How do we maintain the strength of our Army by keeping the right NCOs in the force, but while also taking care of those who raised their right hand and were willing to serve this nation in a time of war, and how do we properly transition them and do it the right way?”
Finally, he said, is planning for the future of the Army, to plan for what the Army will need to continue to maintain the security of the United States.
With all of those issues, Odierno said, he believes that Dailey will serve as an advisor and leader to help the Army make the right decisions.
“Sgt. Maj. of the Army Dan Daily is the one who can lead us that way,” he said. “He understands those problems and he understands what it will take. I know his preparation and leadership and experiences will help us to lead this great Army into the future — and to ensure that this Army will remain the greatest Army in the world.”
After being sworn in to office, and swapping out his uniform coat for a new one that bears his new rank insignia, Dailey explained how he, a self-described “middle of the road guy,” was able to rise to the highest enlisted position in the Army.
“As a young man I was a pretty average kid,” Dailey said. “I did well in school, but I wasn’t the valedictorian. I was somewhere in the middle of the class. I played high school sports. But I wasn’t a superstar athlete. I couldn’t play in the band — because I don’t have any musical talent at all. I’m even average by military standards: 5-foot 9-inches, and 161 pounds, as of this morning. I checked. By all accounts I was a poor, average kid from Northeastern Pennsylvania.
“How does a middle-of-the-road guy make it to this rank? To represent the finest fighting forces the world has known?” he asked. “The answer is simple. It’s sitting in the seats in front of me. It’s leadership — leadership from great Soldiers, noncommissioned officers and officers that I served with over the years. These are the people who make Army leaders.”
Daily said leadership is not born, but is rather built.
“I am merely a product of the best the Army has ever had to offer,” he said. “I am grateful for that.”
Dailey thanked both the officer and enlisted Soldiers who helped shape his career, as well as civilians in government and those from his home town, including his high school principal. Dailey also thanked his mother for developing in him and his brothers “the ethical and moral foundations we needed. Mom, thank you and I love you.”
He also thanked his father, an Army veteran who recently passed away. “He taught us boys a strong work ethic and discipline. And he ensured we all had a sense of patriotism. Dad, rest well, and the boys are all okay.”
He also thanked his two older brothers, saying that as the baby of the family there had been for him both privileges and sacrifices.
“My brothers felt it was their responsibility to begin building my resiliency at a very young age,” he said, drawing laughter from the audience. “In the Dailey house, resiliency is code-word for ‘the punching bag’ during their live re-enactment of Saturday morning episodes of Kung Fu Theater. Brothers, you made me strong. Thank you. But don’t try it now. Combined with years of military service, and the fact of this stage of your life — the younger samurai now has the advantage.” He mentioned also his younger brother.
He thanked his wife Holly: “I love you for sticking by me for 21 years, and the seven I wasn’t there; but most of all because you’re my best friend. Thank you.”
Finally, he thanked his son, Dakota. “I’m so proud of you … you’re the reason why I get up every day and work so hard. You really are.”
“All of these people, from the former leaders to my family, made it possible for an average guy to be the representative for a million of the nation’s best and brightest,” Dailey said. “That’s why I’m convinced that anyone can be the sergeant major of the Army. Any Soldier in today’s Army, even an average Soldier like me, has the potential to be an Army senior leader some day. It just requires two things: great leadership, and a strong Army family.”
From designing and building Ebola Treatment Units to providing transportation to health care workers, NCOs have proven to be instrumental in the U.S. military’s support of Operation United Assistance in Liberia, said the command sergeant major of U.S. Army Africa, Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffery Stitzel. But their greatest contribution, he said, has been keeping U.S. Soldiers healthy by enforcing standards and discipline.
Stitzel was the first NCO on the ground with USARAF’s commander, Maj. Gen. Darryl Williams, when they arrived in Liberia on Sept. 16 to organize the U.S. military’s response to the Ebola crisis. Rather than the traditional adversaries in combat, the main foes these Soldiers are facing can be avoided only by adhering to a strict hygiene regimen, he said.
“The biggest advice I have for any noncommissioned officer deploying here (to Liberia) is to get educated about the disease and really understand it, because it is important,” Stitzel said. “They need to realize how important discipline is. That’s what NCOs do. So when we identify what the training requirements are, … noncommissioned officers are the ones who are going to train those tasks and then enforce those standards in-theater. Discipline is what keeps our Soldiers safe.”
As of Dec. 2, more than 17,256 Ebola cases have been reported and 6,113 individuals have died of the virus in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Liberia alone has seen 7,650 cases and 3,155 deaths. Four Ebola cases have been reported in the United States — two imported cases, including one death, and two locally acquired cases. A New York doctor who contracted the virus after treating patients in Guinea, as well as two Dallas nurses who treated the individual who died of the virus have since recovered and have been discharged from their hospitals.
The spread of the virus can be stopped only by quickly identifying and isolating infected individuals and those with whom they have had close contact, the CDC states. The virus is not spread by casual contact, and the CDC considers Soldiers deployed to Liberia to be low risk, as they are not in contact with Ebola patients while in-theater. Each Soldier is still meticulously monitored for symptoms including a rise in temperature, vomiting, diarrhea or unexplained bruising or bleeding, and measures have been put into place to immediately recognize any who need to be routed to care. Close monitoring and strict hygiene routines will better protect potentially exposed individuals and everyone around them, Stitzel said.
Discipline is saving lives
Education is the best way for NCOs to set themselves and their Soldiers up for a safe and successful mission in Liberia, said Sgt. Maj. Doug Hall, who was the Operation United Assistance engineering sergeant major in Liberia during the initial weeks of the effort.
“Pay very close attention to the pre-deployment training,” Hall said. “The training is important. You need to understand the transmission of the disease and how to protect yourself and your Soldiers. And you need to understand what you are coming here to do. You are not coming to treat people, you are coming to either build or provide logistical services. Be mission-focused, and always keep safety in mind.”
U.S. Army Soldiers are in Liberia to provide mission command, logistical, engineering and living support to the organizations that are treating patients and fighting the spread of the virus. Even though they do not have direct contact with Ebola patients, Soldiers are required to lower their risk of exposure by stepping in a shallow container of chlorine bleach solution before entering buildings and by washing their hands frequently with diluted bleach.
Soldiers must also have their temperatures taken and logged at least twice each day, as a rise in temperature to 100.4 degrees may be the first sign of infection. Stitzel said Soldiers can’t get into most buildings without their temperatures being taken. A record is kept of each Soldier’s temperatures every day he or she is in the country, and close monitoring will continue through a 21-day isolation period after a Soldier has left the country. These measures are in place to ensure U.S. Soldiers do not contract the virus, and, in the unlikely event one of them should become infected, to prevent the virus’ further spread by identifying those individuals before they become contagious.
NCOs are the key to enforcing these preventative measures and protecting Soldiers’ health, Stitzel said. From avoiding exposure to the Ebola virus and malaria to lowering the risk of accidents, NCOs save lives by ensuring every Soldier follows protocol.
“Whether it’s in this Ebola environment or anywhere else in Africa, safety is about discipline,” Stitzel said. “It starts with, ‘Do you have your bug spray? Are you taking your malaria pills?’ Malaria is our biggest threat, and it is easily mitigated by discipline. So we come up with different plans. There is a sergeant who looks at everybody and says, “OK, take out your pills and put them in your mouth,’ and then he watches them take it. The commanding general and I do the same thing every morning. He is my battle buddy, and I’m his.”
Great NCO leadership
Stitzel said everywhere he goes in Liberia, he sees exemplary NCOs. Their hands-on style of leadership has contributed greatly to this particular mission, he said.
“There is an Air Force senior master sergeant – Senior Master Sgt. Michael Jordan – who is here with the joint task force port operating team,” Stitzel said. “He has a little over 100 folks working out at the airport, bringing in all the supplies. They take care of all the passengers who come in and all of the equipment that comes in, as we start building out this theater. I watch his airmen and the Soldiers who work for him, and they are doing phenomenal work.
“You go out and see the Seabees out there, and you’ve got a petty officer directing his sailors in two- and three-person teams, getting the land set for us to build these life-support areas. Sgt Maj. Doug Hall went in and helped design and coordinate with the contractors to build the living areas and work areas. These tents and all of these [buildings] that are going up, somebody has to divide up the plan and tell them where to do it, how we are going to do it and set it up. Hall has been the right NCO at the right time to get done what needs to get done.”
In a partnership with the armed forces of Liberia, Hall’s unit was responsible for starting construction of the Ebola Treatment Units, the Monrovian Medical Unit in the country’s capital and the headquarters area.
“We have all of our officers and our engineers – they design, and I am more of a get-out-there-and-make-it-happen person,” Hall said. “It’s been important to get NCO eyes onto what they are designing on paper to develop a product, to get from the conceptual stage to actually building and get the mission done. I think NCOs here have brought that to the plate.”
‘I’m proud to be part of this joint effort’
On Oct. 25, USARAF transferred authority of Operation United Assistance to the 101st Airborne Division. The 101st Airborne Division will continue the work USARAF began: overseeing the joint military operations and providing mission command, logistical, engineering and living support to those fighting to stop the virus.
After witnessing the large-scale joint effort – which includes the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps and Liberian military units – of OUA, Stitzel said this deployment will always stand out in his mind.
“I was at the Monrovia Medical Unit today, and right there at the airport you see the joint force working together,” Stitzel said.
U.S. sailors completed the land preparation and built latrine and external structures; U.S. airmen were in charge of building and setting up the structures, and U.S. Army engineers contributed by building the floors at the airport’s now-functional 25-bed hospital.
“To me, personally, I think it’s an amazing opportunity, not only to help out our airmen, but help out in a global situation — helping out wherever we are needed,” said Air Force Master Sgt. Will Villalobos, who helped lead the team working at the airport. “We will always be ready at a moment’s notice. I’m proud, so proud, to be part of this team and to help out the people of Liberia in every way we can.”
Stitzel said NCOs should take pride in this unique mission and in their work alongside so many other organizations assisting the Liberian people. He has been impressed, he said, by the swift and effective cooperation between the United States and Liberian militaries, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Doctors Without Borders and others.
“I’ve been on a few deployments, and they were all very important missions. But this is definitely going to be one I look back on with pride. We are here in support of USAID, and so I feel very proud to not only be a part of this fight against Ebola but to work with all of the other federal agencies and departments that are here working so well together. It has been a great experience and a blessing to being a part of this mission of helping the people of Liberia.”
Staff Sgt. Jonathon Goodrich shined his boots and brushed horsehair from his dress uniform, taking time to pick a small string off the shoulder of his jacket and burn away stray fibers with a cigarette lighter.
Though the sun had barely risen, Goodrich and the other NCOs of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard’s) Caisson Platoon at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., had already polished every piece of brass and leather on their tack; fed, washed and brushed their horse; and double-checked the same tasks completed by their Soldiers for each of their two horses.
The meticulous routine is performed every day the riders and horses pull flag-draped caskets on caissons from the Old Post Chapel into Arlington National Cemetery, escorting fellow Soldiers to their final resting place.
Goodrich, the 4th Squad’s leader, said it can be hard to spend so much time making a uniform perfect, only to have it ruined minutes later when his horse rubs against another, re-scratching his boots and covering him once again in hair.
“But I don’t do this for me,” he said. “I pay close attention to whose services we are doing each day, because I dread the day a name
comes up that I know personally from previous tours.”
Staff Sgt. Daniel Twomey, 2nd Squad’s leader, said each NCO and Soldier of the platoon takes pride in even the smallest task, because they are conscious of the honor of their duties and of what their work means to the families of the Soldiers being laid to rest.
“The whole job is an honor,” Twomey said. “I have friends in Arlington National Cemetery. It’s good to be able to see what we can do for the families, for all of the people who they have lost — to see that they are honored, that we do right by them. We try to give them everything we can give, because they gave us everything they could give — their lives.”
Work ethic: an example for the rest of the Army
The work ethic displayed by the platoon — comprised of all NCOs and enlisted Soldiers with the exception of one officer — is impressive. Not only do they engage in hard, physical labor from dawn till dusk, they do it with little or no oversight and with impeccable attention to detail.
The platoon’s 56 members are divided into four squads and a headquarters element. The four squads share duties through a four-week rotation. On alternating weeks, when a squad is not performing missions in the cemetery, Soldiers spend their days maintaining the platoon’s barn and equipment. Every buckle is unbuckled; every piece of brass that is removable is removed. The brass is polished, and the leather is scrubbed clean, dyed and re-oiled. Every piece is made perfect before it can again be part of a procession into the cemetery.
“The most honorable part of our work is paying tribute to the families and to the Soldiers we lay to rest. Right underneath that is being able to uphold such a high standard,” Twomey said. “The work ethic that these guys put out — it’s an honor just to be their leader.”
The labor is not reserved for the Soldiers. NCOs work in the stables just as hard as their subordinates do — polishing tack, mucking stalls, picking hooves, feeding and bathing horses, and cleaning the century-old barn until it shines.
“During my training, I actually got a blister in the web of my hand because it had been a long time since I had pushed a broom with any sense of urgency,” said Staff Sgt. John Ford, the caisson operations NCO. “The Caisson Platoon is the hardest working platoon in the Old Guard, definitely. … An NCO is here at 4 o’clock in the morning, and an NCO is the last person out the door, usually around 6 o’clock at night. It’s not always the same NCO, but it does happen.”
Responsibility beyond their rank
Ford said the responsibilities given to NCOs of the Caisson Platoon prepare them to be some of the best leaders in the Army, as they are required to deal with situations far and above what most NCOs at their grade are expected to handle. He explained that the E-5 sergeant in charge of supply is responsible for submitting and reviewing bids for contracts usually handled by a battalion-level executive officer. The NCO in the cemetery responsible for the conduct of the mission — the one who deals with the officer in charge of a funeral — may be a corporal who happens to be an experienced rider.
“That corporal will be dealing with the civilians who are naturally going to approach us in the cemetery between missions,” Ford said. “He’ll be dealing with other branches. It may be a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel he is dealing with for this funeral, and for the next funeral, it will be an officer from the Coast Guard.”
Sgt. 1st Class Eric Hayman, platoon sergeant for the Caisson Platoon, agreed that his NCOs have more than the usual responsibilities on their shoulders. In addition to being responsible for the health and welfare of their Soldiers, squad leaders are also responsible for the health and welfare of their horses.
“NCOs have to be hands-on with these horses to find out what they need,” Hayman said. “A horse may be acting up and you don’t know why — it could be a health issue. A tooth may be growing up and needs to be floated — filed down so it’s not cutting up into their gums. It’s just one more thing the NCOs have to pay attention to, and it’s a big responsibility. This is hard work that has to happen every day, and it does wear on you. You don’t get Saturdays and Sundays off; the work has to be done. … The NCOs here just shine. They do their jobs well and they don’t think twice about it. In my eyes, these are some of the best NCOs we have in the Army.”
Missions steeped in history
The Soldiers — and it seems even the horses — are aware of the significance of their job. The rich traditions upheld by the platoon date back to Civil War times, giving deep meaning to everything they do.
The team of six horses — either all white or all black — pulls the casket in a 1918 replica artillery caisson. Originally, the caissons were used to pull cannons on the battlefield. But when they weren’t pulling weapons or ammunition, they hauled the dead and wounded, leading to their use in military funerals today. The Caisson Platoon usually participates in eight funerals per day — more than 1,700 funerals each year.
The six horses are hitched in three teams: the lead team in front, the swing team in the middle, and the wheel team closest to the caisson. The draft horses used as the wheel team — large breeds often weighing more than a ton — are usually ridden by the most experienced Soldier. They do most of the pulling, and serve as the brakes for the caisson.
All six horses are saddled, but only three Soldiers ride on the left, or “near,” horses, just as they did during the Civil War and World War I. The “off” horses were not ridden, but were instead used to carry provisions and supplies.
Ford noted that two caisson teams used to work together, one leading the way with the weapon and the other following with the ammunition and tools.
“In an emergency, if something terrible were to happen to the caisson that was forward with the battery, those three [off] horses could be detached from the team … and you could go up and recover the riders from the gun crew,” Ford said.
A seventh horse, ridden by the squad leader, is not attached to the caisson. The squad leader rides next to the team of six, giving directions to the three riders. Ford explained that this configuration originated out of necessity. Having the section chiefs mounted on their own horses enabled them to move between the two teams, he said.
One of the oldest and most significant traditions used by the platoon is the caparisoned horse — a riderless horse led behind the caisson during a funeral procession. The practice can be traced to the time of Genghis Khan, when a horse was sacrificed at the burial of a soldier to serve the individual in the afterlife. Today in the United States, the horse represents the Soldier being buried and takes on his or her rank. Boots are placed backward in the stirrups of the empty saddle, as if the rider were facing back for his final ride, overlooking his family and troops.
Use of the caparisoned horse is reserved for funerals of Army or Marine Corps officers with the rank of colonel or above, as well as for the funerals of presidents and those who have served as the Secretary of Defense.
Goodrich explained that the tradition of tying boots backward in the stirrups came from a cavalry practice during the Civil War. Even during the funeral procession for Abraham Lincoln, his horse followed the casket with the president’s boots tied in the same manner.
“If an officer were to go down in battle, Soldiers would take his boots off, tie them in the stirrups backward in the same way and smack the horse,” Goodrich said. “The horse, being a creature of habit, goes back to where he is comfortable, where he is fed, where he knows — back to camp. When the horse showed up with the officers’ boots tied backwards, they would know that officer had perished in combat. We use it the same way now, with that horse specifically representing the person who we are burying, to carry on the traditions of those times.”
The tack used by the platoon can also trace its roots to the early days of the country. Fabricated from scratch by the in-house saddler, everything from the bridles and bits, to the harnesses that attach the horses to the caisson is a replica of the tack used in 1916, the year of the last major design change for the field artillery harness and tack. In 1943, most active horse-drawn and horse-mounted artillery and cavalry made the transition to motorized modes of transportation. In 1948, the remaining horse-mounted units were deactivated, and the Caisson Platoon became the last full-time horse-mounted unit in the Department of Defense.
“There are a couple of installations that have horse-mounted units, but it’s not their full-time job,” Ford said.
Learning from horses
The NCOs of the platoon said they view their horses as fellow Soldiers. The special bond formed between them is clear in the gentle way the Soldiers handle the horses and in the happy voice they use to talk to them as they work. By spending time with individual horses on a daily basis, the Soldiers quickly learn the funny quirks they may have and each one’s likes and dislikes.
The farrier, Sgt. Charles Morrison, works with each horse in the platoon. Every morning, he tightens the shoes that need to be tightened before the horses go into the cemetery. Every six weeks, he brings each of the platoon’s 61 horses into his shop for a “manicure” and new shoes. Morrison said he continues to learn all there is to know about being a farrier — including traditional blacksmith work — from Robert Brown, a contractor who doubles as the platoon’s herd manager. In turn, Morrison teaches his Soldiers and anyone else in the barn who wants to learn.
Morrison was glad to say he has never been hurt on the job, something he attributes to paying close attention to the horses and their modes of communication.
“Part of working with the horses is getting to know their personalities,” he said. “You get to know their signs. It’s like working with a bunch of kids: You get to learn the action that comes before the action. You see the physical signs they are showing you before they act out. Sometimes, they just get impatient.”
Morrison said observing and learning from the horses has improved his human communication and made him a better leader.
“It made me realize that there are certain points — so much that Soldiers can take — before they start acting out. It’s helped me to step back and look at the overall picture with my Soldiers. A lot of times, with Soldiers as well as with horses, it’s not necessarily what they’re doing. It’s what I’m doing to cause them to do it.”
Learning from Soldiers
Soldiers and NCOs who come to the Caisson Platoon are handpicked from the best of the Old Guard. Though most come from an infantry background, the platoon is open to men and women of any MOS — from truck drivers to public affairs specialists.
According to Hayman, 99 percent of the Soldiers and NCOs who come to the platoon have no horsemanship experience. They actually prefer it this way for uniformity and to avoid having to correct bad habits, Hayman said. New Soldiers and NCOs attend a 9-week course at nearby Fort Belvoir, Va., where they learn all the basics of riding and horse care. Once they arrive at Fort Myer, there is an additional month and a half of training before they are allowed to participate in a mission.
“Sometimes it’s really difficult for the NCOs who come here, because they’ve spent years being a subject-matter expert in their field,” Ford said. “They know everything about their current job and have been reading up on all the latest publications, trying to stay ahead of the curve, trying to learn about the most recent thing the enemy’s doing and the most recent equipment the Army is fielding. … Then they get here, and the manual that we go off of is the 1942 field artillery mounted instruction manual, which hasn’t changed in 75 years.”
Morrison agreed that NCOs new to the platoon quickly realize that their skills as an infantryman will not help them much.
“They still have the leadership skills, the responsibility and all of what makes an NCO. But now they have to learn to step back and take cues from the lower enlisted guys,” Morrison said. “It’s the same with NCOs who leave here to go elsewhere, even within the Old Guard. They are going to a new job as well. Now they have to step back and take their cues from the front-line guys who have been there and know their job. It’s a role reversal. The NCO becomes the student. It takes a little time to get used to that — especially for NCOs who have been out there and done a lot in their career. They have been leaders for a while. They have been the ones who have taught. And now, they have to learn.”
Surrounded by sorrow
Though it may initially be difficult for NCOs to be students instead of teachers, the NCOs of the Caisson Platoon recognize that it only makes them better leaders. By working alongside their Soldiers, NCOs are better able to inspire them and help them cope with the stresses of the job, Goodrich said.
It takes a certain kind of NCO to not only motivate the Soldier to maintain such a high standard, but to also lead them in an environment where they are surrounded by grief on a daily basis, he said.
Spc. Alex Krieger, one of the riders on Goodrich’s team, was the life of the party in the barn. He made everybody laugh. But as soon as he mounted his horse to head to the chapel, his demeanor changed. He and the other riders donned relaxed, somber expressions, and sat tall on their horses, with their chests out and their backs straight. They are not supposed to turn their heads or maneuver in any way. Goodrich said each Soldier processes the grief in his or her own way, and recalled the difficulties of participating in funerals when he first came to the platoon.
“There was a private first class who had been killed in Iraq, and when the service was taking place, the next of kin came out,” he said. “The girl couldn’t have been more than 19 or 20 years old, as pregnant as you can get, and just bawling, people having to hold her up. It ripped my heart out. That was the only time I broke composure to the point where I shed a tear on a mission. But I’ve come a long way since then; I’ve done a lot of them. I’m able to channel a lot more of that now and focus during the mission. After the mission, I can just kind of relax and let it blow off, and then get ready for the next one.”
Because the Soldiers are so restricted in their view of the funeral, Goodrich said he often takes them on a day they are not on a mission to watch a funeral from the distance. He wants them to be able to see the families, to know what it means to them that they are there. The more conscious they are of the service they are providing to the families, the easier it is for them to handle the sorrow and do their jobs well, he said.
“A lot of times the families will come talk to us and ask us questions, and they always say ‘Thank you’ to us for being out there. To me, the honor is mine,” Goodrich said as he waited with his team in front of the chapel for a funeral to finish. “I always tell them, ‘Thank you.’ They ask, ‘Why are you thanking me?’ And I always tell them, ‘Thank you for allowing me to be here for this.’
“The people we are putting in the ground laid the foundation for me to even be here. I take it personally, and hold a lot of pride in this,” Goodrich said. “But all good things have to come to an end. I have a year left, and then I’m off to somewhere else. Hopefully by then, I will have helped others to see things the same way. Because it is — it’s important.”
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