Tag Archives: Arlington National Cemetery

This Month in NCO History: Sept. 20, 1863 — The youngest NCO earns his stripes

In the waning hours of the Battle of Chickamauga, a Confederate colonel on horseback happened upon a 12-year-old boy in a Union uniform lugging a sawed-off rifle.

It was a muggy afternoon Sept. 20, 1863. Union forces were hastily retreating after their failed campaign to force the Confederates out of Chattanooga in the region along the Chickamauga River in northwest Georgia and southeastern Tennessee. With the Confederates in hot pursuit, young John Clem — one of 10,000 Soldiers younger than 18 who served in the Union Army — was separated from a fleeing group and could hear a horse approaching from behind.

“Drop that gun,” barked the Confederate officer atop the horse before demanding Clem’s surrender.

Clem calmly turned around and raised his rifle. He quickly shot the colonel off his horse before sprinting back to the safety of Union lines. The act was the culmination of a series of impressive feats showcased by the drummer boy of the 22nd Michigan Infantry. During the two-day Battle of Chickamauga, Clem was said to have ridden an artillery caisson to the front and wielded a musket trimmed to his size to fight Confederate troops in hand-to-hand combat. Despite losing the battle, Union officers promoted Clem to the rank of sergeant, making him the youngest Soldier to be a noncommissioned officer in the U.S. Army.

Though newspaper articles of the time reported Clem’s actions during the battle, there are no Confederate records of a colonel being wounded. Nonetheless, Clem was later decorated for his actions by then-Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase, who would go on to become chief justice of the United States.

A month after the Battle of Chickamauga, Clem was captured by Confederate cavalrymen in Georgia. Confederate newspapers used his age for propaganda purposes, illustrating how desperate the Yankee cause was “when they have to send their babies out to fight us.” Clem returned to the Union Army through a prisoner exchange and fought with the Army of the Cumberland until he was discharged in September 1864.

Clem was born Aug. 13, 1851, with the surname Klem in Newark, Ohio. He ran away from home at age 9 after the death of his mother. Not much is known about Clem’s actions between then and the time he was allowed to enlist in the 22nd Michigan in 1863, though he was reportedly allowed to tag along with the unit when it was mustered into service in August 1862. A popular Civil War song, “The Drummer Boy of Shiloh” by William S. Hays, was written for Harpers Weekly after the Battle of Chickamauga. It was reportedly inspired by Clem.

After the Civil War, Clem graduated high school in 1870 in Ohio. A year later, after failing the entrance exam to the United States Military Academy, he was appointed second lieutenant in the 24th Infantry Regiment by President Ulysses S. Grant. Clem was promoted to first lieutenant in 1874.

In 1875, Clem successfully completed artillery school at Fort Monroe, Va., and was sent to the Quartermaster Department, where he was promoted to captain in 1882. He spent five years as chief quartermaster at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, before retiring in August 1915 at age 64 and after 45 years of service. As was customary for American Civil War veterans who retired at the rank of colonel, Clem was promoted to brigadier general. Clem was the last Civil War veteran to serve in the U.S. Army. On Aug. 29, 1916, he was promoted to the rank of major general while on the retired list.

Clem married twice. His first marriage, with Anita Rosetta French, came in 1875. After her death in 1899, Clem married Bessie Sullivan in 1903. The couple had three children. Clem died in San Antonio on May 13, 1937. He was 85. The youngest NCO in the history of the Army is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

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This Month in NCO History: July 29, 1944 — Taking command at Grimesnil, France

Sgt. Hulon B. Whittington didn’t flinch when 2,500 German troops overran the roadblock he was manning near the village of Grimesnil, France.

Whittington was 23 years old and serving with the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Armored Division seven weeks after D-Day. The clock had trudged past midnight on July 29, 1944, when a 100-vehicle Panzer unit reached the outskirts of town. The unit was part of the last vestiges of a hasty German retreat from Coutances to the northwest that American forces had secured the previous day. The Germans were headed south on orders to block any further American advance to Avranches. They had suffered huge losses on the Cotentin Peninsula because of the Operation Cobra. The Allied offensive was punctuated by a four-hour air barrage that destroyed more than 350 tanks and other vehicles that were halted during a stalled retreat near Roncey.

That meant the German troops who ran into Whittington and his fellow Soldiers in the early morning hours were tired, desperate and defiant. They fought as such, parlaying their frustration into a near rout of the American defenders. But Whittington was undaunted, and by the end of the attack his actions would be worthy of the nation’s highest honor.

With his platoon leader and platoon sergeant missing in action, Whittington took charge, according to his Medal of Honor citation. The attack in full swing, Whittington reorganized his unit’s defensive perimeter. He then crawled between gun positions to check on his fellow Soldiers while under heavy German fire. Suddenly, a German Mark V tank, famously known as a Panther, at the head of the convoy made a beeline toward Whittington’s line. He jumped onto an American tank that had been immobilized and shouted through the turret to direct fire for the crew inside. The crew fired point blank at the Panther, destroying it. The resulting wreckage left the rest of the German column at a standstill.

Whittington then led a bayonet charge against the stalled Germans. The Americans followed him, using hand grenades, bazookas and tank fire to destroy more of the enemy vehicles as they went. Eventually, artillery units joined the fight and the destruction of the German convoy was completed.

But Whittington wasn’t done. After learning that his unit’s medical corpsman was struck by enemy fire, Whittington administered first aid to the wounded. His impact during and after the battle was a stellar display of “the dynamic leadership, the inspiring example, and the dauntless courage,” worthy of the Medal of Honor. Whittington was decorated with the medal April 23, 1945.

Whittington was born July 9, 1921, in Bogalusa, La. He enlisted in the Army in August 1940 in Bastrop, La. Whittington became a commissioned officer in 1949 and reached the rank of major in 1960. He died Jan. 17, 1969, in Toledo, Ohio. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

This Month in NCO History: Sept. 2, 2006 — Soldier goes from tragedy to triumph

For Mark Dodge, a former Army sergeant, the ninth month of the year brings forth a gamut of emotions. He has experienced tragedy in September. He has also felt the elation of a dream lived.

Dodge was in the Army from April 2000 to January 2004, assigned to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, at Fort Myer, Va. As part of “The Old Guard,” Dodge took part in military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and other notable ceremonies nationwide.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Dodge was at the Pentagon filing documents for a security clearance to the White House when news of the terrorist attacks unfolding in New York flashed across TV screens in the facility. But no one knew another hijacked plane, American Airlines Flight 77, was headed for the headquarters of the Department of Defense.

At 9:37 a.m., the jetliner struck the western side of the Pentagon, killing all 64 of the plane’s occupants and 125 people in the building. Dodge and the rest of The Old Guard stationed nearby at what is now Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall immediately leaped into action. Initially, Dodge helped move survivors to triage tents. After the fires in the building were extinguished, the unit was tasked with sifting through the rubble to find survivors and recover victims’ remains.

“You’d come across stuff you wish you wouldn’t, stuff you couldn’t imagine seeing,” Dodge said in 2006 of the experience.

The experience left Dodge suffering with post-traumatic stress. He eventually decided to halt his Army career and focus on goals he had previously abandoned. The first was reconciling with his estranged father, Howard Dodge, who divorced the younger Dodge’s mother, Toni Inserra, and was largely absent from his son’s life since he was an infant. Dodge did just that, beginning to build a relationship with this father before leaving the Army as an NCO in 2004.

Dodge next set his sights on college, but he didn’t want to enroll at a university simply to be a student. He wanted to play football for a top-tier school.

In high school, Dodge had been an all-state wide receiver in Nevada. He joined the Army after he didn’t receive an offer to play college football. But even though six years had passed since he last set foot on a field in competition, Dodge was not discouraged. He added 20 pounds to his 6-foot-2-inch frame that tipped the scales at 200 during his Army career, and he went on a strict diet. He wrote several schools, but did not hear back from any of them.

Undeterred, Dodge enrolled at Feather River Community College in Quincy, Calif. The Golden Eagles play in the Golden Valley Conference of the California Community College Athletic Association. In the fall of 2004, at the age of 23, Dodge started at inside linebacker. His ability to chase down ball carriers received the attention of several Division I programs. In 2006, Dodge accepted a scholarship offer from Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, citing the school’s rich military traditions as a big reason for his decision.

On Sept. 2, 2006, nearly five years since the attacks that left an indelible mark on his psyche, Dodge had something of a cathartic moment.

In front of more than 70,000 fans at the Aggies’ Kyle Field against The Citadel, Dodge saw his first action as a Division I college football player with 2:57 left in the 1st quarter. On his first play, Dodge displayed the same strength and fortitude that helped him succeed in the Army. From his inside linebacker position, Dodge followed a sweep play to his right, blew past a blocker and tackled a Citadel running back for a loss. One play later, Dodge forced a fumble that his Aggies recovered to spur a 35-3 blowout win.

“This is more fun than I can ever dream of,” Dodge said after the game. “One bad day here is a lot better than a very good day overseas.”

Dodge won the starting position the following week. He played linebacker for two seasons for Texas A&M and finished his Aggie career with 168 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. In 2007, he received honorable mention on the All-Big 12 team.

Today, Dodge lives in San Antonio with his wife and son.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa

Caisson Platoon NCOs work to honor fallen comrades, families

By MEGHAN PORTILLO
NCO Journal

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.

Staff Sgt. Daniel Twomey, 2nd Squad’s leader in the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), shines the brass on the bridle he will use on his horse during funerals that day. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Staff Sgt. Daniel Twomey, 2nd Squad’s leader in the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), shines the brass on the bridle he will use on his horse during funerals that day. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

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.

Polishing all of the leather and brass on their tack is one of the first things the Soldiers and NCOs do when they arrive at the barn each morning. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Polishing all of the leather and brass on their tack is one of the first things the Soldiers and NCOs do when they arrive at the barn each morning. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

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.

Spc. Cheyenne Rakestraw of the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), walks with a horse during his final test to become a caparisoned horse walker at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013. A caparisoned horse and his walker follow behind a funeral procession for Army and Marine officers in the rank of colonel and above. The horse is seen without a rider and wears reversed boots in the stirrups of the empty saddle to signify that the service member will never ride again. (Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.)
Spc. Cheyenne Rakestraw of the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), walks with a horse during his final test to become a caparisoned horse walker at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013. A caparisoned horse and his walker follow behind a funeral procession for Army and Marine officers in the rank of colonel and above. The horse is seen without a rider and wears reversed boots in the stirrups of the empty saddle to signify that the service member will never ride again. (Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.)

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.

Sgt. Charles Morrison, the Caisson Platoon’s farrier, tightens a horse’s shoe at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s John C. McKinney Memorial Stables as the Soldiers prepare for the funerals that day. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Sgt. Charles Morrison, the Caisson Platoon’s farrier, tightens a horse’s shoe at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall’s John C. McKinney Memorial Stables as the Soldiers prepare for the funerals that day. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

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.

Pfc. Dustin Davis (left) and Pvt. Sean Chapman play a soccer match with their horses as part of the Caisson Basic Rider’s Course at Fort Belvoir, Va., in 2013. Although it looks like a game, the exercise helps the riders learn how to control the horses. (Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.)
Pfc. Dustin Davis (left) and Pvt. Sean Chapman play a soccer match with their horses as part of the Caisson Basic Rider’s Course at Fort Belvoir, Va., in 2013. Although it looks like a game, the exercise helps the riders learn how to control the horses. (Photo by Sgt. Jose A. Torres Jr.)

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.

Spc. Alex Krieger drapes the flag-covered casket after a Caisson Platoon team leaves a burial site, signifying that there are no longer remains being carried on the caisson. The casket pictured is a “mock” casket, with a compartment in the back used to carry cremated remains on the caisson. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Spc. Alex Krieger drapes the flag-covered casket after a Caisson Platoon team leaves a burial site, signifying that there are no longer remains being carried on the caisson. The casket pictured is a “mock” casket, with a compartment in the back used to carry cremated remains on the caisson. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

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.”

Staff Sgt. Jonathon Goodrich, 4th Squad’s leader in the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), rides alongside his Soldiers as they escort the remains of a fellow Soldier to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery, Va. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)
Staff Sgt. Jonathon Goodrich, 4th Squad’s leader in the Caisson Platoon, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), rides alongside his Soldiers as they escort the remains of a fellow Soldier to his final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery, Va. The C Company casket team marches next to the coffin. (Photo by Meghan Portillo)

This Month in NCO History: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive — Oct. 12, 1918

Sgt. Samuel Woodfill was once referred to as “the greatest American Soldier of the World War” by the celebrated Gen. John J. Pershing.

Woodfill earned the high praise for actions during an Allied offensive in Cunel, France, which also resulted in him being awarded the Medal of Honor. The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was fought from Sept. 26, 1918, until the armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. It stretched along the Western Front during World War I and was the largest frontline commitment of Soldiers by the U.S. Army during the war.  Its objective was to push through enemy lines and capture a railroad station in Sedan, France, to cut off a vital German supply route.

On Oct. 12, according to his Medal of Honor citation, Woodfill was leading his company through a dense fog towards the village of Cunel when it came under heavy fire. Then a lieutenant, Woodfill set out ahead of his line with two Soldiers trailing and located a German machine gun nest. Woodfill successfully flanked the nest and eliminated three of its four occupants with his rifle. The fourth occupant charged Woodfill. After a hand-to-hand struggle, Woodfill killed the enemy with his pistol.

The company continued its advance when it came under fire again. Woodfill once again rushed ahead. Despite being hindered by the effects of mustard gas, Woodfill shot several of the enemy while taking three others prisoner. Minutes later, Woodfill rushed a third machine gun pit and killed five men with his rifle before jumping into the pit with his pistol, where he encountered two German soldiers. With his ammunition exhausted, Woodfill grabbed a nearby pickax and killed both.

With the machine guns silenced, Woodfill’s company continued its advance through Cunel under severe fire.

At the end of the war, Woodfill was the most decorated American Solider to have participated. Along with the Medal of Honor, Woodfill was the recipient of the French Croix de Guerre, the Italian Meriot di Guerra, the Montenegrin Cross of Prince Danilo and various other awards. He resigned from the Army upon his return to Fort Thomas in November 1919 but re-enlisted three weeks later. With the Army trimming its force to pre-war levels, Woodfill rejoined the ranks as a sergeant.

Pershing selected Woodfill to join Sgt. Alvin York and Lt. Col. Charles Whittlesey as pallbearers at the burial of the Unknown Soldier at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 1921. He retired as a sergeant in 1922.

Woodfill joined the Army in 1901 and spent time in the Philippines, Alaska, Kentucky and along the U.S.-Mexico border before ending up in Fort Thomas, Ky., in 1917. On Christmas Day of that year, Woodfill married Lorena Wiltshire and the couple purchased a home in Fort Thomas.

After World War I, Woodfill was encouraged to run for U.S. Congress, an effort he rebuffed. Instead, he worked as a carpenter, a watchman and even tried starting an orchard before the nation — and the Medal of Honor recipient — was thrust into global conflict once again. In May 1942, two months after his wife died, Woodfill was commissioned an Army major and spent two years as an instructor in Birmingham, Ala.

In 1944, Woodfill resigned from the Army and moved to a farm in Switzerland County, Indiana. He was found dead there Aug. 13, 1951. Woodfill was originally buried in the Jefferson County Cemetery near Madison, Ind. His remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery in August 1955.

— Compiled by Pablo Villa