JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
On the quiet, narrow streets north of Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, residents regularly see processions of family and friends escorting their loved ones on their journey to the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery.
As processions reach the cemetery gate, military members or veterans approved for Memorial Guard honors are met by members of the U.S. Army North Caisson Platoon, one of only two active-duty Army caisson units in the world.
The procession of the caisson dates back to the Civil War and is the Army’s way of honoring those who have served their country honorably. It is also a reminder that no one is left behind.
“After major battles during the Civil War, caissons from both sides would enter the field to act as gathering points for fallen soldiers from both sides,” said Sgt. 1st Class Timothy French, U.S. Army North Caisson Platoon Sergeant. “They would then begin the trek to their respective mortuary affairs teams to be identified and interred, if possible.
“We have brought this piece of history forward to maintain the tradition of the final escort for fallen service members and pay homage to our past to maintain the reminder that we know why we still fight and sacrifice,” he said.
Unfortunately, during the last year the platoon has been unable to provide caisson services due to safety concerns, deterioration of the caisson and the need for additional trained horses and soldiers. This was a drastic change from the 54 missions and more than 700 funerals the platoon completed in 2018.
Then, on Feb. 22, U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Javier J. Gutierrez, a member of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, returned home to San Antonio, his final resting place. He and Sgt. 1st Class Antonio Rey Rodriguez died Feb. 8 as a result of wounds sustained while engaged in combat operations in Afghanistan.
Mourners watched that day as six Memorial Guards in uniform walked alongside Gutierrez’ flag-draped casket on the platoon’s 100-year-old caisson, operational for the first time in over a year, drawn by a team of four horses and followed by 12 soldiers. The guard was led by team leader Sgt. Tyler Rogers on horseback to the designated committal area where a service and military honors took place and last goodbyes were tearfully rendered.
The somber, yet overwhelmingly patriotic procession of the caisson that has been missing at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery has returned due to the efforts of the caisson platoon.
“The platoon’s ability to make the necessary adjustments and repair their caisson was instrumental in the U.S. Army North Caisson being able to perform the funeral mission for Special Forces operator, Sgt. 1st Class Gutierrez,” French said, assuring that the platoon will continue to improve their ability to maintain the mission safely.
“Our soldiers have completed extensive training and come here directly from service with the Old Guard in Virginia,” he said, adding that specialized training with horses is required to be a part of the team.
“Working with horses in these circumstances requires precision and takes experience and skill,” he said. “The horses, combined with gun and cannon fire, a band, motorcycles and families require our soldiers and horses to be sharp, alert and steadfast in their tasks.”
Platoon members participating in Gutierrez’ procession were also those who assisted in restoring the caisson just in time to honor a local fallen hero.
“Being able to escort Sgt. 1st Class Gutierrez was an honor, as are all missions we conduct," Rogers said. "I am honored to provide the service for not just fallen service members, but also their families, and I look forward to continuing the tradition the caisson has set and will continue to uphold."
The caisson at Army North owes its existence to one particular Army officer and San Antonio native, Lt. Col. Karen Wagner, who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon. The Army conducted her interment ceremony at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery with the help of the Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Half Section, with caisson honors. Since then, community members, service members and the late Sergeant Major of the Army, Sgt. Maj. Leon Van Autreve, have all contributed to establishing the Fort Sam Houston caisson.