Respect, Honor, and Serving Their Country
By Marilyn Short

 

For nine infantrymen, the thought of working with horses never crossed their minds the day they enlisted in the Army. Today these nine soldiers are part of the newly created Caisson Section, which is part of the Military Honors Platoon of Fort Sam Houston.


LTC Gregory Vrentas, who felt a caisson would be an asset to the Military Honors Platoon at Fort Sam Houston, brought about the creation of the Caisson Section.

The offices of the Military Honors Platoon are located in the old Veterinarian building on Fort Sam – the perfect location for the Caisson Section as the stalls and space were already in existence, although a little outdated. There are a total of approximately 39 stalls in the Veterinary complex, but the barn Vrentas had in mind for the Caisson Section was the barn used by the Pentathlon Team approximately 30 years ago, and was last used in 1988. Since the barn had been shut down for 14 years, a major overhaul needed to be completed before the horses would be relocated; that meant all new wiring, plumbing, and stall fronts. As of now, the 12 stalls, a feed room, a tool room, and two tack rooms have been refurbished in the old Pentathlon Barn – now the Caisson Barn.

The nine soldiers who make up the Caisson Section originally volunteered for the Military Honors Platoon; then volunteered for the newly formed Caisson Section. Only Sgt. John W. Pope of Ft. Worth, Texas and Specialist Michael S. McKay of Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, Specialist Timothy W. Robinson of Snow, Oklahoma, and Corporal Trey Crooks of Kerrville, Texas had previous experience with horses, the remaining five soldiers; Sgt. Brian L. Baird of Springtown, Texas, Sgt. Mark A. Brigman of Sand Lake, Michigan, Sgt. Richard Westbrook of Arlington, Texas, Specialist Andrew Toussaint of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Specialist Ray Saenz of El Paso, Texas had no previous horse experience..

Vrentas also brought in civilian help for the new Caisson Section, Ms. Lee Ann Desalme with 22 years of horse experience and 12 years of professional driving experience and Mr. Larry Rodriguez with his life-long knowledge of training and desensitizing horses. The Section uses a civilian farrier, and a civilian equine veterinarian to complement the 2 on-base vets with some equine experience.

Vrentas worked with Mr. Don Anderson of White Horse Ranch just outside of Tyler, Texas to find the Percheron/Quarter Horses for the Section. The Anderson family has been producing horses for the public eye for generations. Anderson’s daughter Staci Anderson-Diaz thrilled crowds at Rodeos and events as The Magnificent Seven, a Roman Riding act with a team of six white horses, and currently entertains thousands with her producer/performer husband, Jerry Diaz.

The ten horses brought in for the Caisson Section have been renamed for Sergeants Major of the Army: Wooldridge, 2-3 year old gelding – named for the 1st Sergeant Major of the Army, William O. Wooldridge. Dunaway, 2-3 year old gelding – named for the 2nd Sergeant Major of the Army, George W. Dunaway. Copeland, 2.5 year old gelding – named for the 3rd Sergeant Major of the Army, Silas L. Copeland. Van Autreve, 6 year old gelding – named for the 4th Sergeant Major of the Army, Leon L. Van Autreve. Connelly, 10 year old gelding, named for the 6th Sergeant Major of the Army, William A. Connelly. Morrell, 10 year old gelding, named for the 7th Sergeant Major of the Army, Glen E. Morrell. Gates, 3 year old gelding, named for the 8th Sergeant Major of the Army, Julius W. Gates. Kidd, 3 year old gelding, named for the 9th Sergeant Major of the Army, Richard A. Kidd. Hall, 12 year old gelding, named for the 11th Sergeant Major of the Army, Robert E. Hall. Tilley, 10 year old gelding – named for the 12th and current Sergeant Major of the Army, Jack L. Tilley.

The Fort Sam Caisson Section will have 4 horses pulling the caisson, two less horses than the famous Old Guard Caisson Platoon of Fort Myer, Virginia. “We want the Fort Sam Caisson Section to be different from the Old Guard,” said Lt. Rodney Glose. The Fort Sam Caisson Section is a diamond in the rough; they will be the second active duty, full time caisson unit in the Army. The section is projecting approximately two funerals per day, in conjunction with the 10-15 regular funeral honors, unlike the Old Guard that participates in approximately 30 caisson ceremonies a week.

The Fort Sam Caisson Section has made tremendous progress in a little less than a year. When the horses arrived at Fort Sam some of them had been ridden but not driven, others driven but not ridden, and all needed training from ground manners to riding, and desensitizing for their solemn task of pulling the caisson. The soldiers who had never ridden a horse started with English riding lessons, mixing in some Western and Army Cavalry style of riding.

Sgt. Pope and Specialist McKay attended the Old Guard Training Program at Fort Myer February through April of 2002 where they earned their silver spurs. Now Sgt. Pope and Specialist McKay are training the Ft. Sam Caisson Section. After completion of the training the Caisson Section earns their silver spurs, and after completion of numerous ceremonies, they will earn their brass spurs.

Sergeant Dominic Oviedo, stationed at Fort Myer with the Old Guard Caisson Platoon was loaned to the Ft. Sam Caisson Section for a period of two weeks in November to assist in the final training. Oviedo has been stationed with The Old Guard for more than two years and is a native Texan from San Antonio.

While training of the horses and soldiers took place, there were many others working behind the scenes to get the Fort Sam Caisson Section established.

The ceremonial tack, which includes the McClellan saddles and harness were being custom-made by Mr. Doug Kidd of Border States Saddlery of Springdale, Arkansas.

D&D Farm & Ranch of Seguin, Texas was busy customizing a 6-Horse Gooseneck Trailer with Tack room for the Caisson.

The Fort Sam Caisson, which is a replica of a 1918 Caisson, took Mr. Joe Tetz of Tetz Coach & Hearse Company of New Tripoli, Pennsylvania six months to build. Tetz took molds and casting and the holes in the Ft. Sam Caisson seat and footboard are the exact size and in the exact location of the holes as on the original 1918 caisson they used as a model.

The caisson is made of wood, but looks so shinny and smooth to the untrained eye it looks like metal. Tetz used five coats of acrylic enamel on the caisson, but it all starts with a coat of epoxy resin on the wood then it’s sanded – another two coats of epoxy resin, a primer, filler, spray on primer - the caisson was sanded approximately 12-15 times before the acrylic enamel went on.

“This is the fourth caisson that we’ve built,” said Tetz, “but it’s the first one we’ve built to duplicate a 1918 caisson exactly.”

Well, not “exactly”. Originally caissons were used to carry 75mm cannons and were equipped with ammunition chests, tools, spare parts, and wheels. The caisson breaks down into two pieces – the front piece is the tongue and caisson limber, and the back portion is now a flat deck on which the casket rests.

During the funeral procession, four of the horses will make up the team that pulls the flag-draped coffin resting on the caisson. The first pair, the lead pair set the pace and the direction of the caisson. The back pair, the wheel pair pull and break the caisson. All four horses of the team will be saddled, but only the two horses on the left will carry mounted riders.

Located at the left of the lead pair will be a mounted horse called the section horse. The section horse and rider’s job is for overall control and coordination of the caisson, which includes coordination with other riders and funeral company and family.

Sergeants Major and above get full military honors, which includes the caisson. Only ceremonies for a Colonel (O-6) and above get a caparisoned, or riderless, horse. The caparison horse is led behind the caisson tacked with an empty saddle with rider’s boots reversed in the stirrups, a symbol of a warrior who will never ride again.

The riders and horses selected for the funerals will be those with the most experience and these soldiers take their job very seriously, they will be constantly in the public eye, as they are representatives of the Army. The riders will be dressed in their Army Dress Blue uniform with riding breeches, boots and their silver spurs.

Hopefully not all of the Caisson Section’s activities will be so solemn. As the section matures, it is hoped that they will also be available for parades and other events in Texas. But the Caisson Section is a ceremonial unit first and foremost – dedicated to those soldiers who have sacrificed their lives while serving their country or have dedicated their lives to protect our country.

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