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East County Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010 8 years ago

Residents bring military tradition to Sarasota

by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

LAKEWOOD RANCH — For years, horse-drawn caisson burials have been provided for military officers at Arlington National and Fort Sam Houston cemeteries.

Now, they are being provided to fallen heroes in Sarasota as well. Lakewood Ranch Golf and County Club residents Gene Sweeney and Mike Evers and longtime Arabian horse breeder Karin McMurtrie are leading local efforts to provide the horse-drawn caisson burials at Sarasota National Cemetery through McMurtrie’s business, Honors For Service, a unit of Hawk’s Flight Services. The first ceremony, held on Nov. 10, marked not only the first service conducted by Hawk Flight Services but also the first burial of its kind outside Arlington and Fort Sam Houston cemeteries.

“It’s truly an honor to be able to offer this service outside Arlington,” said Sweeney, a Vietnam veteran. “It’s an honor to be able to offer that service to families who, up until this year, were not eligible for this prestigious burial service.”

In January 2009, the honor of having a caisson burial was opened up to all service members who died from wounds received as a result of enemy action.

During a caisson burial ceremony, a flag-draped casket is placed upon a caisson wagon pulled by two horses and flanked by three soldiers on each side. A single outrider and a foot soldier lead the procession. A single rider-less horse, called a caparisoned horse, follows behind the casket of an Army or Marine Crops officer who was a colonel or above, or the casket of a president.

“It’s very steeped in history and tradition,” McMurtrie said.

McMurtrie, a 30-year veteran of the Arabian horse industry, approached officials of the Sarasota National Cemetery about a year ago with the idea.

“At first, no one was sure how we would do this,” he said. “It’s never been done for a private entity providing the (service) at a veteran’s (cemetery). We had to go through quite a few hoops and learn protocol.”

But now with the first ceremony completed, McMurtrie and her team are moving forward, working carefully to ensure the service Honors For Service provides is up to military standards.

The caisson itself, as well as the tack and harnesses for the horses, are exact replicas of the equipment used in caisson burials at Fort Sam Houston and Arlington cemeteries. Uniforms for individuals who walk alongside the wagon will be replications of the Civil War Union Artillery uniforms, McMurtrie said.

Hawk Flight Services personnel also are undergoing training with the U.S. Army Caisson Platoon at Arlington to ensure services are an exact replica of the service provided there.

Sweeney and Evers said they already are seeing a demand for their services, but the company is in the process of acquiring horses and working out other details before moving forward with more business.
“We have, at this point, literally asked people to be patient,” Sweeney said.

For now, Sweeney, executive vice president of business development, and Evers, president and CEO, are spreading the word about the company. Sweeney said he will work with local funeral homes as well as local VFW and American Legion posts, which would be able to raise money for caisson burials for families of veterans who cannot afford the service.

“We’re very sensitive to the expense of this as well,” Sweeney said. “The community is the heartbeat of what this is about.”

The men said Honors For Service hopes to begin offering the burial honors daily at Sarasota National in the near future and also to license other businesses to provide the service at other national cemeteries in Florida, and then throughout the country.

“This is a wonderful venture that is evolving,” Evers said.

For more information, contact Sweeney at (770) 330-7683 or visit

Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].

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