A horse-drawn caisson slowly rolls toward a burial site
at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery
It could be an old man who lived a full life. It could be a young man who died too soon.
Better not to know, they say. Do your job, do your best to pay tribute to them.
“This husband, this son has earned the right to have a caisson funeral,” says Sgt. Jason Baldwin.
“We get to take them to their final rest.”
Baldwin was riding Hall, a 22-year-old veteran of these ceremonies, a horse that knew without being told the route through the painful beauty of Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery, with its bright white headstones, to the burial site where the soldier’s family waited.
Fort Sam Houston’s is the only full-time caisson section in the country other than the illustrious Old Guard at Ft. Myer at Arlington Cemetery.
It doesn’t share the same high profile, but it has the same charge: to convey departed soldiers to their final resting place in a rite with deep roots in military tradition.
In this age of modern warfare, there is something comforting in the fact that the Army still has a need for horses.
On this day, when the hearse arrived, the men straightened up in their saddles, their backs erect and their faces grave. The horses shifted their feet and arched their necks, sensing their job was about to begin.
Baldwin trotted out on Hall and saluted as he passed the hearse, then turned to face the caisson.
A six-man military honor guard removed the flag-covered casket from the hearse, gently carried it to the caisson and secured it to its bed.
Baldwin swung Hall around and began to walk. The caisson moved forward.
There was a rhythmic clop-clop-clop of horses’ hooves, jangling of the harness chains and creaking of wheels as the caisson section made its steady, solemn progress.
When the group arrived at the burial spot, the honor guard removed the casket and carried it to the bier (elevated platform).
The caisson moved on. There would be taps and gunfire and a eulogy, but the men on the horses wouldn’t be there for it. Their job was done.
If there is one thing the soldiers of the Fort Sam Houston caisson section are sure of, it’s that what they do has a place in today’s world.
“This is not a regular job, this means something to me. I’ve been to Iraq, I know what happens,” Baldwin says. “I love being able to give honor to those who have fallen or have returned and done their part.”
The Army itself even changed the lyrics of its official song from the original “And the caissons go rolling along” to “And the Army goes rolling along.”
But at Fort Sam Houston, nine soldiers, eight horses and a stable master make sure that a caisson does still roll — for those who served their country and those who paid the ultimate price doing so.