ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA - Every day, the soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (“The Old Guard”) carry out the sacred duties of the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon.
The platoon conducts eight full honors funerals a day, carrying fallen servicemen and women to their final resting places at Arlington National Cemetery. This special honor is reserved for former presidents of the United States, military members of high rank, and service members killed in action.
Sergeant 1st Class Michael Skeens is the caisson platoon Sergeant.
“I have served with the Old Guard from April 2016 until now, and I've been given a tremendous opportunity to serve in this platoon. So, from the care of the horses and equipment, to the soldiers' appearance and riding style, it is an honor and privilege to be a part of this platoon,” he says. “Every horse in this platoon has its own personality, just like every soldier here. I have 59 soldiers in the platoon and 61 horses. So, this is a pretty big organization,” says Skeens.
Sgt. Skeens says every soldier volunteers for duty in this specialty platoon and must go through the basic horsemanship course.
“We run a 10-week course over our 10-acre ranch on Fort Belvoir. Each soldier, whether they have horse experience or not, is trained on everything they need to know about a horse, from picking the feet to grooming to different types of groundwork. Whether it's the lead and pass, and half circles or full circles, things like that, all the way up into the saddle into a canter. Even cleaning all the leather and making sure it's in pristine condition, as well as polishing the brass. So, the instructors of that course have been great at identifying and teaching soldiers exactly how to conduct the mission and how to treat the horses.”
Sgt. Skeens says there are four riding teams, and the horses have to withstand some severe distractions.
“Each horse has to be able to endure different things, like sounds from trumpets playing, airplanes, rifles and even cannons going off. The horses must learn to ride as a team with the caissons. I have two squads of black horses, two squads of gray horses. At any given time, two teams are riding. We rotate them in the cemetery every day. So one black team goes out with a white team and they conduct four full honor funerals per day.”
Sgt. Skeens says a caisson horse typically serves for a decade, and in that period, it will participate in thousands of funerals for service members. The Caisson Platoon
of the 3rd U.S. Infantry is the last full-time equestrian unit in the Army.
“One horse, ‘Sergeant York,’ has been with the caisson platoon for 22 years. He's actually twenty nine years old this year which in horse years makes him about one hundred and one and a half. And he's still out there performing missions every day. Most notably, he walked in the presidential procession for Ronald Reagan."
Sgt. Skeens says for him, it’s a solemn duty of honor and respect to serve his part in The Old Guard.