More than 50 soldiers and 30 horses assigned to the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) Caisson platoon bear the solemn mission of transporting service members and their family members to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery, Va.
Each day, teams of four soldiers and six horses set out to accomplish this honorable mission. On Feb. 4, as one Caisson team set out on their first of many missions, they were unaware that this day would be different from any other and that one soldier’s quick thinking would save their horses from certain peril.
“As we were coming up to Memorial Chapel [on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall] to receive remains to take to the cemetery, one of the horse’s shoes got stuck in a grate,” said Staff Sgt. John Ford, infantryman, Caisson platoon.
The horse’s shoe became lodged in the drainage grate. As Babe, the Caisson horse, fell forward, the grate lifted from the ground leaving a hole below it. Tillman, the horse following behind Babe, fell into the opening.
“As soon as I realized we were in the hole, I jumped off right away,” said Tillman’s rider, Spc. Jacob Eberly, infantryman, Caisson platoon.
Due to the weight of the caisson and the fact that the team had been traveling uphill, Tillman was unable to climb out of the hole.
A caisson is a horse-drawn wagon that is used to carry coffins for military funerals and can weigh up to 2,500 lbs.
“The farther the caisson would go back, the farther Tillman would go down into the hole,” said Eberly. “I ran to the back where the wheels were and grabbed the spokes and began pushing the wagon forward. I was just trying to help my horse as much as possible.”
With Eberly’s assistance Tillman slowly pulled himself up.
Ford said by the time he realized Tillman had fallen into the hole, Eberly already had him out of it.
“Without spending a lot of unnecessary time evaluating the situation, Eberly immediately saw the right thing to do and that was to get the wagon off of the horse to where the horse could get himself up,” said Ford.
Ford said in that moment, Eberly epitomized the core value of selfless service.
“He definitely risked his own well-being,” said Ford. “Once the horse got out he could have ran off and dragged Eberly with him. Ebberly also could have been run over by the wheels or kicked by the horse.”
However, Ford said he understood why Eberly took the chance.
“It speaks to the training we have here in the Caisson [platoon] and it speaks to the personal relationship the soldiers have with the horses themselves,” said Ford. “The horses rely on us in a lot of situations and we have the responsibility to take care of them in those situations.”
Following the incident, Sgt. J.E. Snider, an animal care specialist assigned to Public Health Command District-Fort Belvoir, treated and stitched up some of the deeper cuts the horses sustained on their legs. Nonetheless, Snider credits Eberly for minimizing the damage that could have been done.
“The injuries could have been a lot worse than what they were had Eberly not done what he did,” said Snider. “It could have also gone into more horses because they were all hooked up. I really honestly think that Eberly saved the day.”