June 14, 2004


THEIR DAYS START BEFORE DAWN: Soldiers' chore: tending those 6 black horses (SUSAN KINZIE, 6/14/04, Washington Post Service)

At 4 a.m., in the darkness, Army Spc. Stephen Cava and other members of the Old Guard's elite Caisson Platoon begin their work in the nearly century-old stable at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va. They wash the horses, rub oil into the black leather saddles, muck out the stalls, rinse the worn brick floors.

All those chores translate into the details that make a military tradition evocative and powerful: six horses, all alike, drawing a caisson laden with the body of a soldier in a coffin -- a ritual repeated hundreds of times a year.

And once in a great while, the ritual is lifted into something extraordinary, and the members of the Old Guard become a part of history. [...]

According to tradition, three soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Regiment, the Army's oldest active unit, ride in blue wool dress uniforms. Three horses walk riderless next to them, all six pulling the caisson.

Caissons are rich in American history as well. Originally designed to carry artillery, they began being used in the 1800s to bring dead soldiers off the battlefield. Another soldier rides on a horse alongside them, leading the way.

For Reagan's funeral procession, a single horse without a rider, known as a caparisoned horse, marched to the same cadence. A pair of boots, set backward in the stirrups, represented the warrior who will not return.

''This is something that's very symbolic,'' said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University. ``It's a part of the nation's history that [died] with Reagan's body. It puts an era to closure.''

It's important to have the full ritual, he said, because the tradition provides a structure that pulls people together. ''It's a tribute to him and a moment in the history of our nation,'' Wayne said.

Last week was a pluperfect example of why ritual and tradition should be maintained, binding not only we the living but us to our past.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 14, 2004 9:33 AM
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