The caissons, which were made in 1918 and carried 75-mm cannon and ammunition, are also polished and shined daily. They gleam as if new and have been refitted to carry flag-draped caskets.
The 40 soldiers in the Caisson Platoon keep all of their equipment in top form, spending countless hours spit-shining saddles and other leather tack, as well as brass.
Soldiers in the platoon serve a week on duty in the stables and two weeks assigned to funeral details. When on funeral detail, they report to duty at the stables at 4 a.m. and begin to shine and clean tack and wash horses. Starting at 9 a.m., they take part in funerals, returning to the stables at 4 p.m. and cleaning tack until 6 or 7 p.m.
Stable duty is easier, in that the soldiers report to work at 6 a.m. and are out of their saddles all day. The spotless stable underlines the work ethic of the soldiers in the platoon.
Spc. Moore, a 21-year-old Alaskan who has worked more than 200 funerals — with four or five a day — says the hours and hard labor take a toll. “It’s a non-stop job,” he says. “It’s not a job where you get a lot of breaks. You actually work the hours.”
He says that the funerals that affect him most are of those who died on active duty. “Whenever you know that the guy was just recently deployed somewhere and he died at a young age, that’s kind of memorable,” he says.
Soldiers in the platoon who participate in more than 500 funerals receive brass spurs to wear on their riding boots. Many of the members of the platoon have served in 300 or 400 funerals. They wear dress blue uniforms while on funeral duty.
Sgt. Christopher Newton, who has been in the platoon three years, has worked in more than 500 funerals.
“I like working with the horses the best in my job,” says Sgt. Newton. “It takes a lot out of you to ride the horse all day and stay in the saddle.”
When members of the platoon take a caisson to the cemetery, three of them ride on horses on the left side in front of the caisson. The three horses on the right are empty because, traditionally, those mounts carried supplies. A non-commissioned officer also rides a single horse on the left of the caisson and leads the detachment, communicating by radio as the unit moves from funeral to funeral in the cemetery.
The riderless horse, also called a caparisoned horse for its trappings — an English saddle, saber and scabbard, bridle, breast plate, ammunition pouch, and spur-fitted riding boots reversed on the saddle — follows behind the caisson if special honors are to be bestowed on the deceased.
Spc. Adam Stewart, a 21-year-old from Fort Meyers, Fla., is one of the platoon’s “cap walkers” (a phrase derived from the word “caparison”) — a high honor, which means that he leads the riderless horse behind the caisson. Spc. Stewart has completed 150 funerals in the cemetery and like all the soldiers in the platoon says it’s an honor to bury the dead at Arlington Cemetery. He says horses trained to be riderless horses are chosen for their attitude and temperament.
Perhaps the best known of the current riderless horses is Sergeant York. Named for the World War I Medal of Honor winner from Tennessee, Sergeant York is black, as are all riderless horses, and has been specially trained for his duties. All of the horses and soldiers are trained for 10 weeks at a ranch at Fort Belvoir, where platoon members also become skilled riders and knowledgeable about horses.
Spc. Jason Getz, 21, completed his training at the beginning of the year and has worked 103 funerals. Spc. Getz, who hadn’t ridden before, says the training at Fort Belvoir is demanding but enjoyable.