Lincoln, Nebraska – Horses specially trained for military burial services at Arlington National Cemetery arrived in Nebraska last week, donated to perform similar ceremonies at Lincoln's Wyuka Cemetery.
Instead, they are frolicking on a farm south of town awaiting word on whether the cemetery board of trustees wants to move ahead with the project.
Three horses arrived last week, and more could be arriving in the coming months.
Ken Gray, a Wyuka official who's been working with the U.S. military to obtain the horses for about a year, is frustrated.
“We're running into some people who don't want to see it happen, and they happen to be our people,” said Gray, who works with grieving families at the 136-year-old cemetery.
Mike Tefft, chairman of the cemetery's board, did not immediately return a message. The other two board members, Cathie Petsch and Jeff Schumacher, also did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
About a year ago Gray contacted the military when brainstorming about ways to honor Nebraska's fallen veterans.
He eventually was put in touch with Major General Galen Jackman, the former commander of the Military District of Washington who was widely seen escorting Nancy Reagan at President Reagan's funeral.
Jackman also has ties to Nebraska, having graduated from the ROTC program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Jackman was enthusiastic about the project and without his support it wouldn't have gone anywhere, Gray said.
While the board ponders what to do, the horses are living on a farm outside of Lincoln owned by Don Everett, the president of Runza Restaurants and also the president of the Nebraska Benevolent and Protective Association.
Everett agreed to take them after Gray contacted the horse association to see if anyone could help while the cemetery board figured out what to do.
“I want to help the soldiers,” Everett said, explaining his willingness to assist with the project.
Collectively they have participated in thousands of burials at Arlington, Gray said.
Since they are getting up in age, 14, 16 and 17, the military decided it was time for them to retire. And while they could have been sent to a horse farm to live out their days, since they were trained to do burial ceremonies and Wyuka came calling, the military went ahead with the project.
While the horses would still be called on for services at Wyuka, they would not be nearly as busy as at Arlington, where more than 1,000 ceremonies are held a year by the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry, traditionally known as “The Old Guard.”
Gray's vision is to offer similar military burials at Wyuka, with the Arlington horses pulling the casket in a specially made caisson. Pledges are lined up to pay for a $35,000 caisson to be built by the same manufacturer of those used at Arlington, Gray said. Once built, it will be used in some services at Arlington before being sent to Nebraska, he said.
Gray also is in talks to have members of the Nebraska National Guard certified by the U.S. military in how to conduct a funeral with the caisson.
“We want the only other place to get this ceremony to be at Arlington National Cemetery,” Gray said.
He does not know of any other civilian cemeteries with horses from Arlington being used to pull caissons as he envisions. The horses would live at the cemetery in stables built in the 1880s.
Mike, left, and Casperina are seen in a snowy pasture near Lincoln, Nebraska, Tuesday, November 15, 2005.
The horses, specially trained for military burial services at Arlington National Cemetery,
arrived in Nebraska last week. They were donated to perform similar ceremonies at Lincoln's Wyuka
Cemetery, but instead of working as intended, they are frolicking on a farm south of town awaiting word on
whether the cemetery board of trustees wants to move ahead with the projec
Ken Gray, a Wyuka official, looks over Casperina, left, who is standing with Mike, top, and Mabel,
bottom right, in a snowy pasture near Lincoln, Nebraska, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2005. The horses, specially
trained for military burial services at Arlington National Cemetery, arrived in Nebraska last week.
They were donated to perform similar ceremonies at Lincoln's Wyuka Cemetery, but instead of working as
intended, they are frolicking on a farm south of town, awaiting word on whether the cemetery board
of trustees wants to move ahead with the project.
Cemetery board takes no action on Arlington Cemetery horses
The board in control of Wyuka Cemetery was in a quandary Friday over what to do about horses donated from Arlington National Cemetery for use in military burials.
“I want to make lemonade out of these lemons that have been dealt us,” said Mike Tefft, chairman of the cemetery’s board at an emergency meeting. It was called in response to an Associated Press story published Thursday disclosing that the horses from Arlington had arrived.
Problem is, the board members said, they didn’t know any horses were coming.
“They’re not our horses,” said board member Cathie Petsch. “I’m not sure we need to be concerned about who owns them.”
The board decided to take no action, after being told that the three horses have not been titled to Wyuka. Board members said they did not know who had title to the horses.
Wyuka employee Ken Gray, who spearheaded the project, was not at the meeting. He declined to comment immediately when contacted Friday.
Tefft said he didn’t know the horses were in Nebraska until he got an e-mail Wednesday from Gray telling him about it. The horses had been in the state for a week.
“I will tell you I’ve never been so shocked in all my life,” Tefft said. “At no time have we ever talked about getting horses from Arlington.”
The board had discussed buying younger horses from a breeder that also sells to Arlington, Tefft said.
“Used, old horses have never been a part of the whole formula from day one,” Tefft said.
Furthermore, the board had told Gray to put the project on hold in April, July and again in October, Tefft said. Military burials are proceeding at the cemetery, just not any involving a caisson or horses, the board was told.
Gray said on Tuesday that his vision was to use the retired Arlington horses for burials at Wyuka with a caisson that had been used at the national cemetery just outside Washington, D.C. Money has been pledged to pay for a $35,000 caisson, he said.
The three horses, Mike, Mabel and Casperina, have been in thousands of ceremonies at Arlington, Gray said. Mike was used to help carry the caisson carrying the body of President Ronald Reagan.
The horses are being housed on a farm outside of Lincoln owned by Don Everett, the president of Runza Restaurants and also the president of the Nebraska Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association.
Tefft said he had interest in the caisson project, but given all that was entailed in making sure it would work he didn’t think it was wise to move ahead at this time. Details about costs associated with boarding the horses and building a new stable were not timely provided, contributing to the board’s decision to put it on the back burner, he said.
“We are cemetarians, not horse people,” Tefft said. “I’m not sure how we proceed. … Quite honestly I’m befuddled.”
Don Everett said he expects to see the three specially trained horses who have been staying at his Lincoln acreage leave by the end of the day Friday.
The horses were donated last month to help provide military burials at Wyuka Cemetery. They were retiring after years of burial duty at Arlington National Cemetery.
They are heading back to Virginia because neither the cemetery nor the Nebraska National Guard agreed to use the animals in burials.
Cemetery officials didn't return calls seeking comment. The Nebraska National Guard said it had enough work providing flags and buglers at all veterans' funerals in the state.
Everett is the well-known president of Runza Restaurants and the president of the Nebraska Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. He said he just wanted to help when he took the horses. He said the loss of the animals will be felt by Nebraska's veterans.
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard