Tag Archives: Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall

4th female sentinel proud to revere tomb’s unknown Soldiers

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

Sgt. Ruth Hanks has many memories to choose from when explaining why she cherishes her job as a tomb guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia.

Perhaps it was when an honor flight of U.S. military veterans, either World War II- or Korean War-era, stopped to watch the changing of the guard at the tomb in the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater. Hanks wondered if one of the veterans paying tribute that day had fought alongside one of the unknown Soldiers.

“Veterans see that Soldier will never be forgotten,” she said. “It’s a big thing.”

Or, maybe it was the first time she heard, “Oh, [the Soldier is] a female. I didn’t know they could do that,” while on duty as a sentinel at the tomb. Though sentinels are focused on performing their tasks, they do hear a few of the public’s comments.

Hanks knows that when she ultimately leaves the prestigious post she will have amassed a wealth of pride, experience and knowledge to share with other Soldiers about her momentous opportunity.

“I am always trying to bring it back to the unknowns so that everybody remembers what we are here for,” Hanks said. “I am there for the unknowns, and I will perform to the best of my ability.”

Demanding, yet humbling

Hanks, a military police officer, comes from a family of military service members, and acknowledges the responsibility she shoulders as the fourth female sentinel. For the most part, though, she sees herself as just another one of the guys.

“It’s a role for other females to look up to, but at the same time, from my point of view I’m just a sergeant in the United States Army who wants to do a job,” Hanks told her college newspaper.

It was after being deployed to Afghanistan in 2013 that she began researching the Old Guard, its specialty platoons and the Tomb of the Unknowns.

“I also happened to run into an old Tomb Guard Identification Badge holder and talked to him a little bit,” Hanks said. “That kind of set in stone what I wanted to try to do during my next assignment.”

“I am there for the unknowns, and I will perform to the best of my ability,” says Sgt. Ruth Hanks, a tomb guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
“I am there for the unknowns, and I will perform to the best of my ability,” says Sgt. Ruth Hanks, a tomb guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

Since 1948, Soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard” have served in the distinguished duty as sentinels, guarding the tomb in any kind of weather, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. The Guard is changed every 30 minutes from April 1 to Sep. 30 and every hour from Oct. 1 to March 31. During the hours the cemetery is closed, the guard is changed every 2 hours.

The impeccably attired tomb guard wears the Army dress blue uniform, which is reminiscent of the style worn by Soldiers in the late 1800s. Sentinels shine their shoes, medals and belt buckles for hours to meet the high standards of uniform preparation.

During the ceremony, the relief commander appears on the plaza of the cemetery’s Memorial Amphitheater and announces the Changing of the Guard. The new sentinel leaves the tomb quarters, which is beneath the amphitheater, and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle ─ the signal to begin the ceremony.

The relief commander walks out to the tomb, salutes and faces the spectators, asking them to stand and remain silent during the ceremony. The relief commander conducts an inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once. Then, the relief commander and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the tomb. All three salute the unknown Soldiers. (The tomb contains the remains of one each for World War I, World War II and the Korean War. The previously unknown Soldier from the Vietnam War was identified as 1st Lt. Michael Blassie. After DNA identification, Blassie’s remains were moved to Jefferson National Cemetery, Missouri.)

The relief commander orders the retiring sentinel to pass on his or her orders, who replies, “Post and orders, remain as directed.” The new sentinel says, “Orders acknowledged,” and steps into position. When the relief commander passes by, the new sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.

Sgt. Ruth Hanks is the fourth female sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)
Sgt. Ruth Hanks is the fourth female sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. (Photo by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

The tomb guard marches 21 steps down the mat behind the tomb, turns and faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors, signifying that the sentinel stands between the tomb and any possible threat. The number 21 was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed posthumously ─ the 21-gun salute, according to arlingtoncemetery.mil.

Lessons learned

Sentinels are considered to be the best of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, which is headquartered at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia. Each Soldier must be in superb physical condition and have an unblemished military record. An interview and a two-week trial determine the Soldier’s capability to train as a tomb guard. Once chosen, he or she will undergo many hours of intensive training and testing, which focuses on overall performance, uniform preparation and knowledge of the tomb and Arlington National Cemetery.

Hanks credits leadership training and the maturity that comes as a noncommissioned officer for preparing her to take proper responsibility as a tomb guard, whether she is executing her duties in front of veterans or family members.

Sgt. Kevin E. Calderon, another tomb guard, shares Hanks’ sentiments.

“Coming down here to the tomb, I’ve developed myself so much to the point I know exactly what I’m looking for when I see a Soldier,” Calderon told Army publications. “Every day here is training. You become a trainer. When new candidates arrive, the goal isn’t to make them as good as you. You want them to be better. It’s the epitome lifestyle of an NCO.”

A great sense of time management and a supportive family has also helped her cope, she said.

“My family loves it,” she said. “When they came out here for my Tomb Guard Identification Badge ceremony, they got to see me out there, and they really enjoyed it. It’s just overwhelming pride that you see in your family. I don’t do it for that, but seeing that is just phenomenal. It’s one of those things; you just want to make your parents proud, so it was pretty neat.”

It wasn’t until 1994 that women were permitted to volunteer to become sentinels when the 289th Military Police Company was attached to the Old Guard, according to the Society of the Honor Guard, Tomb of the Unknowns. The MP branch is a combat support unit.

In 1996, Sgt. Heather L. Johnsen became the first woman to earn the Tomb Guard Identification Badge. She volunteered for duty in June 1995 and earned her badge in 1996. Since then, two additional female Sentinels who are also NCOs were awarded the badge ─ Sgt. Danyell E. Wilson in 1997, and Staff Sgt. Tonya D. Bell in 1998.

Women must meet the same requirements as male Soldiers to be eligible as tomb guards. The only difference is that women have a minimum height requirement of 5 feet 8 inches, which is the same standard to be a member of the Old Guard. Male sentinels must be between 5 feet 10 inches and 6 feet 4 inches tall.

“I do not get treated any differently,” Hanks said. “The crowd might have more of a response because there is a female there, but when it comes to work and training, it’s absolutely the same.”

Hanks foresees that her praise of the tomb, guards and the military ritual will endure long after she has moved on from her duty, urging prospective visitors to Washington, D.C., to stop by the Tomb of the Unknowns for the Changing of the Guard. “Check this out, and I’ll tell you a little story about them,” she would say.

“I would be passing on history,” Hanks said. “The motto of the tomb guard is ‘Soldiers never die until they are forgotten. Tomb guards never forget.’ That’s what we have to keep doing.”

 

The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty is total and wholehearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me, never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance.
My standard will remain
Through the years of diligence
And the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect,
his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well-meaning crowds by day,
alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this Soldier in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

To join ‘The Old Guard’

Prospective noncommissioned officers and enlisted Soldiers interested in joining “The Old Guard” may call The Old Guard Recruiting Office at commercial 703-696-3007 or email Old Guard Recruiting at usarmy.jbmhh.mdw.mbx.tog-recruiting@mail.mil

Old Guard honors the fallen

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

More than 400,000 active-duty service members, veterans and their families are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. Whether they are maintaining a 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns or firing three rifle volleys as part of the Firing Party, 3rd Infantry Regiment Soldiers conduct ceremonies and memorial affairs to honor America’s fallen at the cemetery.

Up to 30 funerals take place daily at the nation’s most revered cemetery and the Army does about half of those, said Sgt. 1st Class Adony A. Batista, platoon sergeant for the Firing Party of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard).

By the end of a two- or three-year tour in the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry regiment headquartered at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall at Arlington County, Virginia, a Soldier will have performed 100 or more funerals for service members, according to the Old Guard.

Military funerals with standard honors include a Casket Platoon, the Firing Party and a bugler, as well as a caisson for service members who have reached the top NCO grade of E-9. In addition to standard honors, full honors military funerals include an Escort Platoon and a military band.

Soldiers in the Old Guard must pass the demanding Regimental Orientation Program, a three-week course designed to teach new arrivals the subtle distinctions of the uniforms of the Old Guard, rifle movements and marching that is unique to the elite precision unit.

Maintaining ceremonial composure is critical to the unit’s Soldiers, especially in front of the families who serve as inspiration.

“We are that last Soldier some of these families see, whether it be here, rendering final honors for service members or at the Tomb of the Unknowns, [so we have to be on point],” Batista said.

Photos by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal

 

NCOs embrace Old Guard’s sense of tradition and duty

By MARTHA C. KOESTER
NCO Journal

Honor. Privilege. Prestige.

For the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), presiding over America’s fallen is a duty that the 1,600 Soldiers who volunteer for the Army’s oldest active-duty infantry regiment are dedicated to carrying out with the utmost precision.

Service in the elite unit, which has served since 1784 and is headquartered at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall at Arlington County, Virginia, means participating in several high profile, yet solemn, duties in the nation’s capital. Since World War II, the Old Guard has served as the official Army Honor Guard and escort to the president.

Sgt. 1st Class Adony A. Batista has served as the Casket Platoon squad leader and the Firing Party platoon sergeant for the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). “Out of everything I have done since I have been in the Army for 13 years, this has been the most rewarding,” Batista said.
Sgt. 1st Class Adony A. Batista has served as the Casket Platoon squad leader and the Firing Party platoon sergeant for the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard). “Out of everything I have done since I have been in the Army for 13 years, this has been the most rewarding,” Batista said. (Photos by Martha C. Koester / NCO Journal)

Noncommissioned officers are valued by the Old Guard for their combat experience and proficiency in soldiering skills. NCOs of the Old Guard lead Soldiers through a diverse set of missions, from ceremonies at the White House to memorial affairs at Arlington National Cemetery. Their professional appearance and conduct sets the standard for the Soldiers in their unit.

NCOs must also meet physical standards, which call for physically fit males to be at least 5 feet 10 inches tall and fit females at least 5 feet 8 inches.

Upon arrival, the demanding Regimental Orientation Program awaits each new member. The three-week course is designed to teach arrivals the Old Guard uniform nuances, rifle movements and marching unique to the unit.

Final honors

Perhaps the most well-known of duties that Old Guard Soldiers provide is the rendering of final military honors for fallen comrades. For the past three years, Sgt. 1st Class Adony A. Batista has been on hand during Army funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, whether as the Casket Platoon squad leader or most recently as the platoon sergeant for the Firing Party.

Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) set up for a Twilight Tattoo performance in June at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Arlington County, Virginia. Twilight Tattoo is a military pageant featuring the Soldiers of the Old Guard.
Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) set up for a Twilight Tattoo performance in June at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Arlington County, Virginia. Twilight Tattoo is a military pageant featuring the Soldiers of the Old Guard.

Up to 30 funerals take place daily at Arlington National Cemetery, and the Army does about half of those, Batista said.

“Out of everything I have done since I have been in the Army for 13 years, this has been the most rewarding,” Batista said. “We are the last Soldier some of these families see, whether it be here, rendering final honors for service members or at the Tomb of the Unknowns, [so we have to be on point]. We want to offer the families comfort and for them to know that we did our jobs in honoring and rendering services to our fallen service member in the way they are supposed to be honored.”

Aside from supervising Soldiers’ training and offering mentorship, Batista makes sure necessary personnel are available and ready for funeral services. Maintaining ceremonial composure may not be easy when you’re wearing a wool uniform in 90-degree heat with humidity.

“Honestly you get used to it, and you just learn to deal with it,” Batista said. “That’s why as an NCO you make sure your guys are hydrated, but in the summertime it can get pretty bad.”

Three teams are part of the Firing Party platoon ─ a full honors team and two standard honors teams. Military funerals with standard honors include a Casket Platoon, the Firing Party and a bugler, as well as a caisson for service members who have reached the top NCO grade of E-9. In addition to standard honors, full honors military funerals include an Escort Platoon and a military band.

Training is done consistently to ensure all members are in sync when the Firing Party commander orders them to fire their weapons. The intent is for it to sound as if one shot is being fired at the same time, Batista said.

“It’s seven guys firing, but it should only sound as one shot,” he said. “Three volleys for a total of 21 rounds are fired. You will notice that pretty much perfection is our standard or pretty close to that.”

 ‘Come humble’

Coming from operational assignments to the Old Guard has been a learning experience for Batista. He said he still does the same training, but it’s now training for another side of the Army.

Members of the Firing Party full honors team, 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), await the order to fire their weapons during a military funeral with full honors in June at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. The Firing Party trains consistently to make sure that all members are in sync when they fire their weapons.
Members of the Firing Party full honors team, 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), await the order to fire their weapons during a military funeral with full honors in June at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. The Firing Party trains consistently to make sure that all members are in sync when they fire their weapons.

“For the most part, you still provide that mentorship to the junior enlisted and help them to grow as Soldiers and NCOs,” Batista said.

Though his service in the Old Guard has provided him with a great sense of fulfillment and accomplishment, he has some advice for NCOs looking to join the unit.

“You have to come humble because this is one of the few units ─ because of our makeup ─ that the junior enlisted know the job sometimes better than the NCOs when you first come in,” he said. “So the mentorship, in a sense, not only goes from the top to bottom but bottom to top. Come humble and come ready to learn ─ from your first days at the unit, learning how to march all over again, to learning how to manipulate the sword.”

Eye-opening experience

For Sgt. 1st Class Lane Duhon, Continental Color Guard platoon sergeant, any NCO who volunteers to come to the Old Guard is in for a unique opportunity to see the Army from a different perspective, he said.

“Leading highly motivated Soldiers who volunteer to be here and being able to see all the other noncommissioned officers and officers who want to be here and want to serve the duty that we are charged with, I think it diversifies NCOs’ careers and it helps them lead better and understand the dynamic of being a leader,” Duhon said.

Duhon credited multiple deployments and former operational assignments for instilling the discipline necessary to serve in the Honor Guard.

“This unit has opened my eyes from those experiences to see the Army from a different perspective ─ from being in an operational unit versus being here and being in a garrison, seeing a program of outreach to the civilian population,” he said. “We’re going to be balancing the military way of life with the civilian way of life. Hopefully we help the public understand us from our perspective and not a negative media perspective.

“Being a noncommissioned officer in the Honor Guard is a privilege, a unique opportunity to do something different in the infantry world and/or any MOS,” he said. “It’s a distinct privilege also to honor our fallen and be able to hopefully leave a lasting impression on people we perform for, leaving them with a positive impression of the military.”

Duhon will be heading back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and an operational assignment with the 82nd Airborne Division, but his time with the Honor Guard and “taking part and surveying the most prestigious job in the Army right now” gave him many learning opportunities, he said.

“I think I am going to take a better understanding of how to lead and mentor Soldiers from a 360-degree perspective versus one approach of getting Soldiers ready for combat,” Duhon said. “I have also had to learn a lot from Soldiers who have taught me lessons on how to do this job that we do here. Everyone knows a little something extra, so you can learn from everyone here.”

Click here to read more about the specialty platoons of the Old Guard.

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)