The Army has extended its suspension of providing horse-drawn caissons for military funeral honors at Arlington National Cemetery through June 2024, a decision service officials said Wednesday is necessary to rehabilitate 27 horses and reset the troubled program.
The 3rd Infantry Regiment's Caisson Platoon, which provides horses and wheeled platforms to transport fallen service members and military retirees to their burial sites at the hallowed Virginia cemetery, announced a 45-day suspension in April to assess the health of the herd and review their living conditions.
The review found that 27 horses in the 48-member herd had muscle and joint injuries, as well as hoof issues, that required rehabilitation. Needing at least 24 healthy, trained horses for three squads, and to give the service time to improve the herd's living conditions at Fort Myer and Fort Belvoir, Virginia, the decision was made to stand down caisson support for the year.
"We recognize the suspension may be disappointing to many of our families. We certainly understand. But we do believe it's the right thing to do," Arlington National Cemetery Superintendent Ray Alexander said during a call with reporters.
The suspension affects only the way remains are transported to a burial site. The plan will be for bodies or cremains to be carried in a hearse or other cemetery vehicle joined by the other elements of funeral honors, which may include a military band, escort platoon, firing party, body bearers and bugler.
By late June, the Army expects to be able to provide a riderless horse for those who rate one based on their rank and service, and hopes by fall to furnish a horse with a rider to lead the hearse in all ceremonies that would have had caisson support.
"I commit to you [that] the level of dignity, compassion and precision provided to each and every family will not be compromised," Alexander said.
Army officials said the service will know in February whether it can meet its June 2024 goal, adding that families should not expect caisson services before then.
"We do regret the impact this extended suspension of caisson operations will have on families laying their loved ones to rest. We certainly understand and empathize with their disappointment and emotions. In addition to our commitment to these families, though, we recognize that the life, health and safety of the caisson herd is a top priority," Alexander said.
Cemetery officials contacted 200 families affected by the initial 45-day suspension and only six decided to postpone burials until after that time frame. Now, however, the service is notifying 351 additional families who have services scheduled from June 15 through September 30, informing them of the absence of the caisson.
They will have to decide whether to proceed with their service, defer or cancel, as will families whose loved ones rise to the top of the queue from October through June 2024.
The average wait time at Arlington for a casket burial of an active-duty service member is roughly 30 to 90 days, while the wait for others eligible for burial or placement in a columbarium at Arlington is 14 to 15 months, according to officials.
The initial suspension followed the deaths of four horses in the platoon the previous year. Two died in February 2022, according to a CNN report that also found the herd lived in small, unsanitary paddocks at Fort Myer and ate low-quality hay.
An older horse later died from surgical complications following a limb fracture, while a fourth horse died in November of "acute abdominal distress," which may have been caused by colic or by ingesting poor-quality hay or even gravel.
During the suspension, the Army plans to buy lighter-weight caissons and better-fitting saddles and tack to reduce the horses' musculoskeletal strain and will acquire and train new horses to replace any that may be retired.
The service also plans to garner a network of horse experts to serve as advisers, and contract with new trainers, a farrier and facilities support personnel to better manage services and quality of life for the horses.
Officials said that, given the demands of the horses' job as well as the needed upgrades to facilities, the Army simply can't go out and purchase new equines. Basic training can take four to six weeks, and training with the wagon takes 30 to 120 days, depending on the horse and their previous training.
Maj. Gen. Trevor Bredenkamp, who took command last week of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, the unit responsible for the herd, said the soldiers and civilians who care for the horses are "committed to learning and resetting the herd and developing the requisite services, facilities and capabilities" to ensure the animals receive the best care.
He added that the decision to suspend operations for a year was not made lightly and, for him, it's personal: His father, retired Air Force Col. Barton Clarence Bredenkamp, died in February and is in the queue for burial at Arlington.
"I've gone through this, but I know that even though this pause is happening with the caisson platoon, he will still receive incredible honors at Arlington National Cemetery no matter how he is conveyed to his final resting place," Bredenkamp said.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct a mischaracterization of the number of families who deferred burials in the first suspension.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime