Anguish, Uncertainty: 66 Families Wait to Bury Loved Ones Amid Suspension of Horse-Drawn Funeral Services at Arlington

Families awaiting horse-drawn services at Arlington National Cemetery
Retired Lt. Col. Theodore "Ted" Felber with his wife Barbara Jane (top left). Retired Command Sgt. Maj. James Cobbett (bottom left) and with his wife Ruth (center left). Retired Col. Jim Ifland (right). (Photos courtesy of Felber, Cobbett and Ifland families)

Ken Ifland went with his father Jim, a retired Air Force colonel, to Arlington National Cemetery last year. They were there to honor Jim's longtime Air Force friend. It was one of the only times that Ken saw his father cry.

"I just remember my dad, bending down and putting his hand on that coffin and crying," Ken told earlier this month. "This was a dear friend of his that was now gone, and he was there to tell him goodbye."

Jim himself passed away in December at the age of 93. Starting out as an enlisted service member, his 30-year military legacy was marked by at least three volunteer tours to Vietnam; special reconnaissance operations -- at one point, racking up 52 combat missions; and work on secret satellite programs key for targeting in the 1970s, among numerous other accolades.

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"My dad was an air commando, he was a warrior, he was a patriot," Ken said. "And he was a great father."

Both Jim and Ken were struck by the solemn salutes from troops, the folding of the American flag, bugled "Taps" echoing off the headstones -- and the rhythmic clip-clop of the military horses that punctuate the silence of the caisson procession to a final resting place at Arlington.

It was an indelible moment for both of them near the sunset of Jim's life. Afterward, Jim made it clear to Ken that, when his time came, he wanted to be buried in the same way as his friends, with the same, full reverence. That wish included the horse-drawn service, a time-honored tradition for generations of veterans.

But five months after Jim's passing, burial honors with the caisson platoon, something that has been included in Arlington ceremonies for decades, are not an option.

The caisson platoon, the Army's military horses that transport caskets of fallen service members to their Arlington burial plots, has been suspended since June 2023. Reports of mistreatment of the animals surfaced in 2022, including two horses that died within days of each other -- a necropsy found 44 pounds of gravel in the colon of one of the animals -- and others coping with poor-quality feed and limited space to live comfortably.

As the Army tries to remedy the situation, 66 families are now stuck in limbo with no clear idea of when they may be able to bury or inter their veterans at Arlington. spoke to several of those families, who are balancing their loved one's final wishes with the uncertainty of when the horses may return. When asked this month, the Army did not have a timeline for when the horse-drawn services would come back.

"Unless they come to me and say this is never going to happen, I'll wait until hell freezes over," Ken said. "I know what my dad wanted, and I'm going to wait until he can get it because he earned it."

Prolonging the Unknown

Behind every Arlington funeral comes the arduous task of organizing: wrangling children and grandchildren; booking flights and hotels; planning for the confusing labyrinth of highways and thoroughfares of the Washington, D.C., area; working with funeral homes to transport remains, sometimes across the country; and, of course, managing the grieving process.

For the families with whom spoke, that process is on hold and prolonged because of the suspension of the horses, which has caused personal issues that make the decision on how to honor their family members that much harder.

"It's not an easy process," Bryan Felber told He has been waiting to bury his father, retired Lt. Col. Theodore "Ted" Felber, a Vietnam veteran who earned the Purple Heart, for more than a year.

Ted wavered on whether he wanted to be buried at Arlington, his son said, not wanting to inconvenience family in California to travel across the country to see him.

"I think we finally convinced him that it's not a concern to us to travel out there if that's what he wants," Bryan said. "And so he finally relented and said, 'Yes, OK, I do want to be buried in Arlington.'"

That was before the suspension of the caissons and, while Bryan didn't seem to have any doubts that his father will be buried at Arlington, he said that coordinating extended family to attend a ceremony at the cemetery, without having a clear idea of when the caissons will be back, has made him consider proceeding without the horses.

He described that Ted's grandkids who want to attend may not be able to because of cost and scheduling, and that Bryan's nieces -- who are schoolteachers -- are concerned with being able to leave their responsibilities for a trip across the country during a busy school year.

"This isn't vacation," Bryan said. "It's bereavement."

Other families told that the planning and grieving woes go beyond scheduling. Family members said that they are still in possession of their loved ones' ashes, which sit untouched as they decide what to do or remain in funeral homes, possibly incurring storage fees.

In at least two cases, the previously deceased spouses of veterans awaiting burial are also being kept in urns or funeral homes because it was their wish to be buried together.

On top of that, wait times at Arlington can already extend for months, with the cemetery performing up to 30 funerals per day. But the suspension of the caissons has increased that wait to more than a year -- and with the uncertainty, maybe longer, the families said. That pressure has made some families reconsider having the horse-drawn service at all.

"I would absolutely love to have the caisson," Bryan said, but after calling Arlington, frustrated and "having been given completely indefinite answers, I came to the conclusion that we ought to just go for it and just be done."

Yet, for him and his siblings, the call of tradition and their father's expectations weigh heavy on the decision. Ted Felber graduated from West Point in 1957. He went on to work on rockets in Huntsville, Alabama, as an ordnance officer before deploying to Vietnam, where he was wounded.

Ted's mother, father and brother are all also buried at Arlington, Bryan said, something that was important to his father's burial considerations.

Others spoke about how having a uniquely sacred place like Arlington for generations of their family to return to pay respects factored into their decision, too -- and that the full honors of the service would impress upon them the legacy that their loved ones carved out.

"My son needs to see that. I'm going to take my grandkids there," Ken Ifland said. "They need to see this."

Even after their deaths, families are still learning about their loved ones. Bryan said that his father struggled with depression stemming from the death of a friend killed during combat in Vietnam.

"He said it was because he felt like he wasn't there for his buddy," Bryan recalled, but it wasn't until after Ted passed that he found that out from his sister. "I just hate the thought that he really kind of did that to himself and didn't really figure out that it wasn't [his] fault."

Ken Ifland, too, said that even after his father's death, "I'm still learning things, he's still teaching me."

Most of the families spoke to learned some deep, personal facts about their veteran after they passed -- ones that get filed into the collective memory of their family legacy as they grieve their loss.

"This is all part of the grieving process for families -- moving on, putting things behind them," Ken said. "And [the suspension] is something that holds that up."

The Way Forward, Confusion

Many of the families that spoke with described frustrating responses from Arlington about the return of the horse-drawn services. They said they often call Arlington for an update or to discuss options about their loved one's services, but are met with indefinite answers, leading to further delays and confusion.

And that is largely because Army and Arlington National Cemetery officials do not know when the horses will come back either. In the spring of last year, Arlington said that it "provided" impacted families an option to go ahead with services without the caissons, or wait until the horses returned -- whenever that would be.

"Due to numerous challenges that hinder a safe return to caisson operations, and based on the advice of equine experts, the Army is continuing the suspension of the Caisson Detachment's funeral support to ANC," Cynthia Smith, an Army spokesperson, told on Thursday.

"The resumption of caisson operations is conditions-based, and at this time, we are unable to provide a specific date," she said.

Until recently, Arlington did not have a full accounting of how many families were waiting for services pending the return of the caissons. In mid-April, officials assured the public that there were no families waiting for services.

When reported that there was at least one family who had contacted the publication, officials said they had reviewed their records and found "a few families who have opted to wait for the caisson to return."

A month later, when asked for specific numbers of families who have been waiting for services, that number jumped to 66 out of 1,800 scheduled services since June 2023.

"We recently reviewed each case to ensure we accounted for all families who decided to wait for the caissons' return," Smith said. "We apologize for any confusion and regret any stress that families awaiting the caisson may have endured."

Meanwhile, the Army said that it is working through improvements to the horses' lives. In April, it said that leaders were fine-tuning work cycles for previously overworked equids, procuring new horses and adopting-out or retiring older ones, training staff, and bringing in expert equestrians and veterinarians to better assess their conditions.

But one of the larger problems with the horses centers on space. Two years ago, roughly 60 animals were being kept in less than 20% of the recommended living space between Arlington and Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where the horses live and train. While the herd has dwindled to 42, alleviating some of that pressure, officials do not have an answer on space, saying in April that the Army Corps of Engineers was "evaluating a variety of options" for a permanent living solution.

Though the families spoke to were frustrated with the situation, they generally understood the balancing act the Army and Arlington are facing. They just wish they had better answers.

"I know my dad wouldn't want to be taken to his burial site by a horse that he felt like was not being treated the way it should be or taken care of the way it should be," Ken Ifland said. "Because that just dishonors the entire ceremony to me."

Some family members said they didn't blame Arlington or the Army for the suspension. Others said they are having a hard time understanding how it is such a hard problem to fix and why it is not happening quickly. One family member said that they were disappointed, and based on their experience interacting with Arlington, felt officials were "seemingly disinterested" in the problem.

When asked whether there are any personal services, outreach programs or general support that Arlington or the Army is providing families awaiting the caissons' return, Smith directed the publication to information and a video Arlington produced last month about the suspension, as well as a number for the cemetery's customer care support center.

She said that the interment services team at Arlington informed each impacted family "that the only element changed with their loved one's service is the method of conveyance to the gravesite," adding that all other elements of the funeral service are still available.

"We empathize with the disappointment and emotions of any of our families who decided to wait for the caissons' return to schedule their loved one's service," Smith said. "We also understand it is a very difficult and personal decision."

It's About the Legacy

Ruth, an Army veteran who was married to her husband, retired Command Sgt. Maj. James Cobbett, for more than three decades, has not been able to have any services for him despite his passing over a year ago. She is also waiting for caisson services.

"It makes you feel like everything else that the military has promised and then takes away," she said. "One more thing that you spent your life -- 30 years -- looking forward to at the end."

When they met 34 years ago, Ruth said it was love at first sight. They met at an Army ball, and a girlfriend of hers set her up with James on a blind date. She was immediately struck by his intelligence and how polite he was.

Ruth got out of the Army, and they traveled the world together as James progressed in his military career. He was always proud of his military service, having gone through the ranks in the supply field, starting out in the Marine Corps for five years, then going to serve in Vietnam, and ultimately retiring at the pinnacle of enlisted service in the Army.

Ruth remembered heartfully teasing him about being in the supply channels in Vietnam, comparing him to Radar from the show "M*A*S*H.".

"He didn't have to be on the front lines, but he still had people that he knew that would go in and never come back out," she said. After Vietnam, he developed complications from being exposed to Agent Orange, which led to ischemic heart disease, multiple myeloma and bladder cancer, Ruth said, for which the approval for his Department of Veterans Affairs claim came only in May -- more than a year after he died.

"He didn't make it to get to that point," Ruth said.

But for James, it wasn't about the accolades, the position or the benefits -- it was the legacy. He and Ruth had been to Arlington many times in their lives, and Ruth said that her husband considered the funeral service a final honor that he "wanted to achieve."

"He loved the idea of [the] horses," Ruth said, through tears. "Only the military ever did that. ... It was like the point of his whole life was to get to that point where the horses could take him to his final resting place."

Ruth said that she would even settle for the single, riderless horse that Arlington currently offers in some cases while the caissons are suspended. When available, a riderless horse trails the hearse during the procession for a high-ranking Army or Marine Corps officer. It is called a caparisoned horse, and it wears an empty saddle with rider boots reversed in the stirrups, signifying that the veteran "will never ride again," according to the Army.

But because her husband was enlisted, he doesn't qualify for it. Here, Smith, the spokesperson, cited tradition when asked why the riderless horse was not available to all ranks.

"This is due to the caparisoned horse traditionally honoring brigade-level and higher commanders of land forces," she said.

For the families that spoke with, the tradition, pageantry and reverence associated with funeral services at Arlington are part of a greater sanctity -- and the horses, though they may seem to some like a small role in that honor -- are a part of the chemistry that makes Arlington so sacred.

And because of that, it makes it hard to let go of their presence.

"Horses are no different than anything else in that ceremony," Ken Ifland said. "It is part of something that I consider sacred to this country. ... It should never be diminished. They should always be done the right way, the honorable way that it deserves, so that we all remember and understand what it takes."

Related: Arlington Horse-Drawn Funerals to Remain Suspended as Families Grapple with Burial Arrangements

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