A Visit with Fort Myer's Army Old Guard

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Horses drawing a caisson offer a stirring and somber site at Arlington National Cemetery funerals. The horses are cared for by the U.S. 3rd Infantry's Army Old Guard Caisson Platoon, based at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va.

(Soundbite of "Taps")

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Tomorrow, the country remembers the sacrifices of its military with parades, salutes, and memorial services. At Arlington National Cemetery, military funerals are carefully crafted, respectful events and are punctuated with sound - "Taps," the three-shot volley.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

HANSEN: Patriotic songs.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: The clip-clop of horses pulling a wagon bearing the casket.

(Soundbite of horse trotting)

HANSEN: The wagon is called a caisson. The riders are part of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment 1st Battalion Caisson Platoon. Over the years, they've become known as the Old Guard.

The Old Guard is based in Fort Myer, just through the gate from Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and about 80 men and women belong to it. They're usually seen on horseback in funeral processions. They wear navy blue coats with smart gold buttons. Their pants are a lighter blue, with a crisp yellow stripe down each leg. They each wear a dark hat, with a brim that almost conceals their somber expressions. Their posture is dignified, and each movement is exact.

The day begins in the dark for these riders. The Caisson Platoon arrives at the hundred-year-old stable at Fort Myer at 4 in the morning. First things first, each horse is bathed. Specialist Christopher Calhoun(ph) hoses down a tall, black one.

Specialist CHRISTOPHER CALHOUN (U.S. 3rd Infantry's Army Old Guard Caisson Platoon, Fort Myer, Virginia): This is Omar(ph). He likes to bite and drink at water, and he'll smile when I spray(ph) his face.

HANSEN: Omar's known as a bit of a prima donna in the stable. Like all the horses, his name is embroidered across his halter. There are two teams of horses in the Caisson Platoons, the black and the white. Walking down the stable aisle, Specialist Calhoun points to each white horse in the stalls.

Spc. CALHOUN: Ringo(ph) right there, he's got a very sloped head. He looks almost like a battering ram, we talk about. Sure Fire, he's fleet and gray. He's got tons of marks. Mickey(ph) and Minnie(ph) are the only horses this short but this thick in size. And then Peter right here, he's also jet white. He has little whiteness on his right eye, he's got moon blindness. And then back there is Ryan(ph). When he opens up his eyes wide enough, most of the time you can see the white portion of his eyes, which you don't see in a lot of horses.

HANSEN: These horses are used in ceremonies, but there's nothing ceremonious about their care. Here is Specialist Daniel Sheppard(ph), a blonde, lanky 22-year-old from Illinois.

Specialist DANIEL SHEPPARD (U.S. 3rd Infantry's Army Old Guard Caisson Platoon, Fort Myer, Virginia): We have a crew of guys who'll come in here if they're not at the cemetery to clean the stables. They'll start picking all the stalls, getting, like, all the poo out and sweep down the aisle ways, and they'll spray it down, and wash everything.

(Soundbite of fanfare)

(Soundbite of gunshot)

HANSEN: It's barely light outside, and the horses are groomed. And some are already tacked out with gleaming black and brass saddles.

(Soundbite of hammer pounding)

HANSEN: This is when Robert Brown(ph) comes to work. Brown is the Caisson Platoon farrier, who checks the horses' hooves, repairs their shoes and makes each horse new ones when needed.

Mr. ROBERT BROWN (Farrier, (U.S. 3rd Infantry's Army Old Guard Caisson Platoon, Fort Myer, Virginia): I just put coal in the fire. This is a coal forge. They don't use propane, which is new to me, so I'm having to learn how to use a coal forge, and I like it so far. It's kind of the old way.

(Soundbite of hammer pounding)

Mr. BROWN: I'll heat the shoe up, and I'll burn the shoe on. I'll heat it up to shape it if I'm using a store-bought shoe.

(Soundbite of hammer pounding)

(Soundbite of hot metal hissing)

HANSEN: After preparing the shoe, Brown's first horse is led in.

Mr. BROWN: This would be Ranger(ph) coming in the house right now.

HANSEN: Brown stands with Ranger's hoof on his knee and nails in the horseshoe. In the next few weeks, Brown will shod all the horses in regular rotation.

Outside the farrier shop, the platoon gathers. They're wheeling the caisson, the wagon that will bear the caskets in today's funerals, out into the yard. They put their shoulders behind the caisson, a black wooden cart, and push. Then, the horses arrive. The black team is first.

(Soundbite of horses trotting)

HANSEN: The men mount and prepare to leave for the gates of Arlington.

Unidentified Man #1: Wheel.

Unidentified Man #2: Ready.

Unidentified Man #1: Lane.

Unidentified Man #3: Ready.

Unidentified Man #1: Swing(ph).

Unidentified Man #4: Ready.

Unidentified Man #1: Caisson forward. Move.

HANSEN: It's about a five-minute ride from the stables.

(Soundbite of horses galloping)

HANSEN: While the cemetery guards watch and tour buses is idle, the caisson rolls through the gates of Arlington National Cemetery. It's the first of eight funerals the platoon will do today, a schedule they keep five days a week, year round. But, says Specialist Christopher Calhoun, every funeral is the only funeral for those gathered at the gravesite.

Spc. CALHOUN: You got to keep in mind that it's a fallen comrade, and you want to make sure that the family gets the best presentation and a proper funeral for the loved one because that's the prime - that's the last time they see their loved ones.

(Soundbite of horses galloping)

HANSEN: Our audio postcard from Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery was produced by Christine Arrowsmith(ph).

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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