Twilight for Arlington National Cemetery’s Gray Horses?

Arlington National Cemetery

Caisson Platoon participates in all Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps full-honors funerals performed in Arlington National Cemetery. When the horses retire, they’re adopted out. US Army photo.

Bucking a tradition that’s nearly a century old, the US Army’s Caisson Platoon will quit using gray horses to ferry flag-draped coffins to graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

Bedeviled by a nationwide shortage of gray horses and escalating procurement costs, Maj. Gen. Allan M. Pepin, the commanding general of the US Army’s Military District of Washington, has ordered “The Old Guard” of the 3rd Infantry Regiment to shift procurement to rides with darker hides, a process officials told Coffee or Die Magazine would take several years to complete.

“Our current gray horses will continue to work and serve as part of the unit until they retire,” and are placed in the Army’s special adoption program, Col. Junel R. Jeffrey-Kim, spokesperson for Joint Task Force-National Capital Region, said in a prepared statement.

The Caisson Platoon currently alternates gray and black horses for the funeral details, which typically require seven horses for each procession.

Six horses are hooked together in three pairs, comprising a lead team, swing team, and wheel team. On the left side of each team, a soldier rides, ramrod straight, in a saddle, which leaves three horses without riders. A section sergeant mounts the seventh horse, which isn’t tethered to the teams.

Arlington National Cemetery

Horses used by the US Army’s Caisson Platoon participate in all Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps full-honors funerals performed in Arlington National Cemetery. When the horses retire, they’re adopted out. US Army photo.

Jeffrey-Kim cited “readiness factors” for the military’s move to buy only black horses.

“The decision to move to an all-black herd reflects the logistical realities in the field and was made based on unit cohesion and readiness,” the colonel told Coffee or Die. “While there is no military regulatory standard on horse color requirements, maintaining a Caisson Platoon with horses of one color increases mission capability.

“We’ve also found over time that gray horses have become increasingly more challenging and expensive to procure, due in part to their popularity. There is medical research and data that indicate lighter colored horses (including the gray horses) are more susceptible to skin conditions, including melanoma,” Jeffrey-Kim added.

The general’s decision also arrives three months after the release of a scathing internal Army report that detailed “unsatisfactory” conditions dogging the horses used by the Caisson Platoon, including cramped quarters, manure-strewn lots, and a lack of funding for improvements.

Arlington National Cemetery

Although they’re famous for pulling flag-draped caskets through Arlington National Cemetery, the US Army’s Caisson Platoon also features the horses for Twilight Tattoos, like in this performance at Summerall Field on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Virginia, on May 8, 2019. US Army photo by Cpl. Lane Hiser.

Indelibly etched on America’s subconsciousness, gray horses have brought some of the nation’s top political and military leaders to their graves.

They bore Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, William H. Taft, Lyndon B. Johnson, and John F. Kennedy; generals such as Douglas MacArthur, Henry “Hap” Arnold, and John “Black Jack” Pershing; and US Navy admirals like William “Bull” Halsey.

The latest order only affects funeral details in the Military District of Washington.

The Caisson Platoon at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, for example, doesn’t use gray horses, has no plans to buy any, and doesn’t fall under 3rd US Infantry command, according to US Army North spokesperson Maj. Geoffrey A. Carmichael.

Arlington National Cemetery

The funeral procession of President John F. Kennedy departs the White House for the Capitol on Nov. 24, 1963. Official White House photo by Robert Knudsen, now at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston.

The Army’s all-black buying plan triggered a fierce and burgeoning backlash from the US Army Caisson Platoon Association of Military Horsemen, a nonprofit that serves as an alumni group for veterans of the famous detail.

Frank Dobrisky, a retired US Army master sergeant who served in the Caisson Platoon between 1995 and 2001 before founding the association last year, called “bravo sierra” on Pepin’s plans.

“The order makes absolutely no sense because the unit has been using black and white horse teams for more than 70 years,” Dobrisky told Coffee or Die.

Although he questioned whether leaders in the Caisson Platoon and The Old Guard were consulted before the two-star made his decision, Col. Jeffrey-Kim told Coffee or Die the plan came after a lengthy review and with a presentation from the brigade.

It wasn’t his idea, but he signed off on The Old Guard’s plan, she added.

“This was a team approach,” the colonel said. “It was based on what’s best for the horses and what’s best for unit readiness.”

Arlington National Cemetery

Horses used by the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment, “The Old Guard,” are stabled at Virginia’s Fort Myer, which is part of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall. US Army photo by Pfc. Lane Hiser.

Dobrisky concedes it’s harder to find gray horses on the market, but the Army’s herd isn’t huge — roughly 25 grays and an equal number of dark horses are stabled in Virginia’s Fort Myer at any given time.

To keep them there, his organization is spearheading a “Save the White Horses” campaign, which urges opponents of the Army’s decision to write and call federal lawmakers and top Pentagon leaders.

And Dobrisky figures they stand a good chance of beating the brass.

“This is not the first time that Big Army has tried to do away with the Caisson Platoon or the white horses,” he said. “They tried both 1957 and 1958 and were quickly overturned due to public outrage.”

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Carl came to Coffee or Die Magazine after stints at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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