- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

Since World War II, the 3rd U.S. Infantry, nicknamed "The Old Guard," has served as the Army's official ceremonial unit and escort to the president of the United States.

Members of the Old Guard maintain a 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and provide military funeral escorts at Arlington National Cemetery. They participate in parades and conduct military ceremonies at the White House, Pentagon and memorials in the metro area.

Old Guard headquarters is the historic Fort Myer, an Army post in Arlington, just over the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Bridge from the District. There the soldiers at the Old Guard Museum and the John C. McKinney Memorial Stables display the honor and pride that have been theirs since the regiment's inception in 1784.

The museum, housed in a building dating back to 1902, welcomes thousands of visitors annually and is open almost every day of the year for visitors to explore on their own. The nearly 7,500-square-foot rotating collection has two sections, one explaining the current organization and its mission, the other dedicated to its history, which details the 3rd Infantry's participation in most of the major conflicts in American history. It includes hundreds of artifacts and reproductions, including weapons, flags, clothing, documents and maps.

The historic collection opens with displays describing life in the old Northwest Territory, roughly the area surrounding the Ohio River. The 3rd Infantry's first assignment, in 1784 when it was known as the First American Regiment, was to enforce the treaty with Britain for protection of the frontier "to protect the Indians from the settlers and the settlers from the Indians" explains acting curator Alan Bogan.

Among the artifacts from that period is an 18th-century flintlock belt pistol. "There were no standard-issue U.S. Army pistols until 1799, so an officer would purchase one suited to his own preferences," Mr. Bogan says.

Another relic is a Mexican .75-caliber flintlock musket used in the Mexican War (1846-48). "We're lucky to have this," Mr. Bogan says. "Lots of them were abandoned on the battlefield, gathered and destroyed. But some were kept as souvenirs by the troops."

The Chapultepec Baton is the most valuable item in the collection and has been with the regiment since the end of the Mexican War. Carved from wood from the flagpole in the Grand Plaza of Mexico City and topped with Mexican silver, the baton was awarded to the regiment by Gen. Percifor Smith, the 3rd infantry brigade commander, for its performance, Mr. Bogan says.

"It carries the spirit of the regiment during the Mexican War," he says.

The "Old Guard Today" area of the museum pays tribute to each element of the modern 3rd Infantry, with sections on the Tomb Guards and the Commander in Chief's Guard, among about six others. The display of a saddle carrying boots reversed in the stirrups is an introduction to a very visible element of the 3rd Infantry: the Army Caisson Platoon, which is based at the John C. McKinney Memorial Stables, just a short walk from the museum.

The Caisson Platoon is the last official equine mounted unit in the Department of Defense. A large part of its mission is serving as the mounted escort at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Army has used caissons since the early 1800s. A combat caisson was a two-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle used to transport ammunition. The funereal caissons used today are drawn by six horses, three carrying riders. Instead of ammunition, they carry caskets.

The Caisson Platoon comprises 40 soldiers and one officer; the stables house 36 horses. On any given day, visitors will find young men (and perhaps the unit's sole woman) leading the horses from exercise area to stall, scrubbing the animals in the huge washroom, feeding and tending to them. The soldiers are friendly and polite, knowledgeable and proud of their horses and their hard-won positions in the unit. Visitors may explore the stables on their own.

During a recent visit, a shining black Standardbred named Sgt. York, a former racehorse, is tied in the aisle, fully prepped for service in a funeral scheduled later in the day. Sgt. York is one of the platoon's two caparisoned horses. The riderless horse honors fallen military leaders as it is led behind the caisson, tacked with scabbard and ammunition pouch, with riding boots reversed in the stirrups to symbolize the soldier who will never ride again.

Spc. Joel Kubicki Jr., a 21-year-old from Detroit, serves as a "Cap walker," leading the caparisoned horse during a funeral procession.

"This is the highest honor in the barn, given to the most squared-away soldiers," he says. For Spc. Kubicki, his assignment with the Caisson Platoon represents his first time around horses.

In fact, says Spc. Robert Mertz, a 21-year-old from Upper Marlboro, "more than half the people here have never worked with horses before." His favorite, he says, is Robert E. Lee, a Percheron/quarter horse cross. "He's a really good ride," Spc. Mertz says. "When you put him in the cemetery, he doesn't get scared easily. He knows he has to do a good job."

The barn also contains an empty stall dedicated to the memory of Black Jack, a famed Cap horse that is best known for following President John F. Kennedy's caisson. The Caisson Room houses the two caissons used today, both built in 1918. The soldiers can perform the minor repair work on the machines, but Amish workers are hired to rebuild the wheels.

The tack rooms contain rows of gleaming saddles, bridles and harnesses. All the equipment is maintained by the solders; the brass on the saddles is polished daily.

"If we have a 9 o'clock funeral, we're here at 4 o'clock in the morning prepping all the tack, washing the horses and getting our uniforms ready," Spc. Mertz says.

The Caisson Platoon performs an average of six funerals a day, Monday through Friday. Every single day of the year, the platoon welcomes visitors to the stables, where any soldier can answer questions visitors might have about the horses, the platoon, the tack and the caissons.

They'll even let you pet the horses.

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