Carrying departed heroes to their last journey home

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Caissons are 2,500-pound wagons pulled by horses. They are used to carry the remains of U.S. presidents and some -- but not all -- of the honored dead.
CBS News

(CBS News) ARLINGTON, Va. - Many of us can remember the image of President Kennedy's casket being carried to Arlington National Cemetery on a horse-drawn caisson 50 years ago this year. What you may not know is a similar honor is given every day to a select few military veterans in one of the most moving ceremonies we've ever seen.

It is a scene that has been repeated nearly 1,500 times a year since 1948.

Seven highly trained horses carry the remains of American heroes to their final resting place at Arlington National Cemetery.

Staff Sgt. John Ford, who did tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, is a squad leader of the Caisson Platoon of the Old Guard. CBS News

"Every day coming into the cemetery," said Staff Sgt. John Ford, "you pause and you take stock and you remember why we do this and the losses that we suffered. There's a lot of pageantry in what we do here in Arlington, but it's both historical and it's respectful."

Ford, 32, served one tour in Afghanistan and three in Iraq. His best friend was killed in Baghdad in 2006. Now he is a squad leader with the Caisson Platoon of the Old Guard.

Caissons are 2,500-pound wagons pulled by horses. During the Civil War, they were used to carry ammunition to the battlefield. Today, caissons are used to carry the remains of U.S. presidents and some -- but not all -- of the honored dead.

"We don't do funerals for every service member that passes," said Ford. "The caisson is for those that are killed in action, all officers and some senior non-commissioned officers receive caisson and army full-honors funeral.

The 53 soldiers of the Caisson Platoon excel at military precision. Their day begins at 4 a.m., grooming the horses, shining the saddles, and making sure the equipment and the horses perform flawlessly. No detail is too small.

"It really is for the departed and for the family members, and as a sign of respect for them that we do the best job we possibly can," said Ford.

The platoon conducts up to eight full honors funerals each day. On this day, they carried the remains of Army Sgt. Brian Walker, who was killed in action in Afghanistan.

As for the most rewarding part of the job, Ford said: "Being able to provide closure to family members as their loved one is laid to rest here at Arlington -- to be able to be a part of that, and to be able to offer the last measure of respect that the U.S. Army and our sister services can give to her departed heroes."

The ultimate sign of respect for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

  • Chip-Reid_bio_140x100_bw.jpg
    Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.