By Jennifer Martin - email
JACKSON, MS (WLBT) - With so many other young men his age headed off to Vietnam, Thomas Chatman knew the military would be an inevitable part of his future. But he wasn't in a hurry to join.
"My daddy was a WWII man and all of the old guys around town said 'boy, if this was south Pacific or Europe and you didn't go, we'd kick your rear end, but this is different. If you do go, we'll kick your rear end. You go to school, you do whatever, to stay away from this mess."
Once he finished college, the draft came calling. It was 1971. But Vietnam would not be his destination. Chatman was invited to join the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd infantry.
"It's just a spit and polish outfit in Washington DC and you go there and you stay. You don't go overseas and I say, 'put me down.' Caisson group, primarily, was funeral detail in Arlington Cemetery, burying the dead and the veterans and families, as well as using the horses in various ceremonial ways: parades, retirement ceremonies, things like that."
His experience with horses helped make him a good fit for the job.
"They put me on a horse and I said I think I know which end of the horse goes and I think I can keep him from having too much fun. And so they put me in the corral and I rode. Pretty quickly, I got moved in to the saddle shop. We were in charge of building and preparing harness and ordering the supplies and 1001 different things. So as a result after the first 4 or 5 months, I didn't get as involved in the cemetery, ceremonials, like the other guys.
The group that I was with was multifaceted in that we had marching groups that carried the coffin, loaded it on the caisson or hearse."
Chatman says he appreciated the gravity of his job.
"At first, you looked at it like, well I'll get through another day and we pranked around and kidded, pulled jokes on each other, things like that. Then, when you get fully trained to it and you start working in the cemetery, then you see the significance of what you're doing.
A lot of families wouldn't have a caisson funeral. It was just too much. It was ...they would opt for a hearse. The cadence of the band and the music, what have you. If you ever watch a caisson funeral, tell yourself, 'I'm not going to cry'."
Over time, he says, he realized the significance of the military funerals even more.
"As you get older and you look back at the service some people gave to this country, they gave it all. The fact that they came back in boxes and bags and that their family had to endure a lot for our country to send them off. I felt like the group that's at the old guard did and continues today, to do a wonderful service to commemorate the sacrifice that these people did. Just by being there, I felt good about myself."
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