Fort Sam Houston’s Caisson Section Pays Tribute to Fallen Soldiers & Veterans

fort-sam-houston-national-cemetery.jpg

 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.

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18 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There’s nothing more solemn than a casket pulled by horses. There was a funeral home in my town that had two sets of horses — black ones for the regular funerals, and white ones for when it was a child.

    I can’t think of anything more heartbreaking than seeing a casket go by, pulled by white horses, and knowing why the horses were white.

  2. Anne,
    How very true. And how very poignant … white horses for a child.

  3. I feel that having horses pull the casket conveys a sense of honor and dignity that needs to be expressed at the loss of those precious lives.

    Thank you for stopping by Mustang ‘n’ Cowboys! I would like to link to this post from the one I did for Veteran’s Day on my personal blog Notes That Touch The Heart. Both my parents were stationed at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and I was born there at Brooke Army Medical Center.

  4. Hi Janey,
    You’re so right, nothing touches us like the scene of horses in a solemn setting, even if it is just one horse standing at attention. Always makes me cry.

    Wonderful Veteran’s Day tribute you wrote! Please do link.

    I’m sure you have many interesting stories about Fort Sam Houston.

  5. Out here the deceased remains three days in an open coffin at home for respects to be paid. Then the coffin is closed and taken to a nearby cemetry with priest, family and friends following on foot. Often a horse cart is used to take the coffin. Occasionally oxen are used because they walk more slowly, enabling the cortege to move at an especially dignified pace. In this way many rural people are taken on their final journey by draught animals.

  6. A very nice tradition. I’m hope it helps those families to know that some really do care.

  7. Those paying their respects come and sit down on chairs or benches in the room where the coffin is. The bereaved family know to pass around plates of biscuits and trays of strong drinks. That way, less needs to be said. However, it is customary to kiss a cross laid on the deceased person’s chest. So one does get a close look at them. This is not quite such a good idea in hot weather.

  8. Transylvanianhorseman,
    Thanks for the fascinating details.

    It would seem the way you have described would be much more personal and comforting for the family than visiting a mortuary.

  9. I can’t think of a better way to reach your final resting place. Beautiful photos and a wonderful tribute.

  10. Thank you so much for this coverage of the Fort Sam Houston Honor Guard Caisson.

    My husband and I are retired trainers, and among his duties before deployment to Vietnam was Honor Guard. He used the Cavalry manual as a youth to learn tack maintenance, and his first coach was a retired Cavalry officer.

    The history of man has been written on the horse’s back and loins, and as late as WWII horses served on the battlefield. The courage and of their service is humbling, and it is only fitting that they are a part of a beautiful memorial service. God bless you.

    Added you to my Blogroll at http://www.delcaminoequestrian.com/wordpress. – Barbara

    Hi Barbara,
    How very interesting about your husband’s experiences as an Honor Guard. There is nothing more somber and chilling than the sight and sound of the horses at a memorial service.

    Thank you very much for the link to your blog.

    Best regards,
    Marvel

  11. As a retired army career soldier I guess I will always feel something special at a military funeral. I served my country for over 27 years and provided a burial detail for two years during the Vietnam War. I would like to share one story of a young soldier we were asked to bury. He was from Cullman, Alabama. In those days we provided a real bugler, not a bugler that plays with a push of a button. We carried the soldiers flag draped casket to the gravesite and placed the casket in its proper place. As the bugler began to play taps the fallen soldiers old hunting dog jumped upon the casket. It took some doing to get the dog to allow the funeral to continue. I was told that prior to the soldier going in the military, he and the dog were inseperable. I love my country and honor all those who serve. God Bless America

    ~~~
    Hello Ken Shamblin,
    We honor you for your dedicated service to our country. The story you have told about the death of yet another soldier, and the love of his dog is a tearful scene, indeed. Thank you for sharing it. The price for every loss is great for all left behind, even a dog.

    Best regards,
    Marvel

  12. I WAS ON THE FIRST CASSION THAT FSH MILITARY HONORS CONDUCTED AT FSHNC. THANK YOU FOR ALL YOU KIND WORDS. IT IS HUMBLING TO KNOW THAT OUR WORK IS SO APPRECIATED.

    FORMALLY
    SGT JOSE CHAPA

    ~~~
    Hello Sgt. Chapa,
    We are grateful to you for bringing dignity to the lives of those that have been lost.

    Best regards,
    Marvel

  13. Dear Sir(s);

    I am President and Regimental Sergeant Major of 9TH MEMORIAL UNITED STATES CAVALRY, representing the BUFFALO SOLDIERS of the Original 9th Cavalry formed in 1866.Our Organization is Tax Exempt and we have been together for 14 Years. Our main operation is Teaching the True and Factual History of the first American Black men to be accepted into the United States Army as REGULAR SOLDIERS instead of Volunteers. Our period dress is Spanish/American War and amd maid to Quartermaster Specifications.

    Recently, here in Phoenix, AZ., we attended Services for a WWII Congressional Medal-Of-Honor Redipient, Mr. Sylvester Herrera. There were some mistakes made in the movement of the Casket to the Bier and one of the Honor stumbled and almost went down. The distance they had to travel from the Hearse was about 40 to 60 yards with the casket.

    After the services, I talked with Active Duty Military personnel, VA., and Veterans Organizations Representatives that were in attendance, about the idea of having a Cassion Platoon here, to service not only AZ., but New Mexico National Cemeteries. They were ALL very “Keen” on the idea and would like our Organization to put it together. Therefore, I am seeking help and advice from ALL sources that I can reach, in training both men and horses and building the caisson itself. If we can pull this together, we have three different uniforms of any occasion; Field, Garrison and Full Dress w/helmet.

    I did not know tha Fort Sam had a Cassion Unit and am VERY glad to hear that. You guys do a Tremendous, Wonderful Job with the greatest respect anyone could ever hope for. THANK YOU, THANK, YOU, from the bottom of our hearts, since we are mostly Veterans. Any advice, etc., you could spare time to give us would be deeply Appreciated. We want this to be, at the very least, on the same level of Professionalism and perfection as both Your Unit and the OLD GUARD and be able to prove this on-going service to the Families of Veterans.

    William “Bill” McCurtis
    Pres./ Regt. Sgt. Maj.
    [an old Tank Commander]

  14. This is quite the tradition, excellent blog post. The horse drawn ride is something that I think I’d like in the end.

  15. I along with another soldier started the FSH Caisson amd trained all the horses and Soldiers…and am so greatful to have had that chance, and even more so the Army has seen fit to continue its service…

  16. My dad was one last horse soldier base at for Fort Sam Houston.I’m trying to find a photo of those men. His name was John K. kerry. He was in World War II.
    Any help would be be a blessing. Thank you for your & time. John R Kerry

  17. Im sorry for this but I spell my father name wrong it was John B. Kerry I hope my first one got threw again thank you for your time

    • Hello John,
      Noted the correction in the name of your dad, JOHN B. KERRY. I hope someone will be able to help you.


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