From afar, a person sees Martha Lasher sitting atop a horse holding a sabre in front of a caisson carrying the casket of a late Indiana National Guard soldier.
Getting closer, she said you mostly likely would see tears welling in her eyes.
Those tears signify the honor and respect she has for the fellow soldier who served the country. To her, it’s a time to pay tribute to them.
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“It’s humbling and an amazing honor that you can’t express that you are guiding a fellow soldier, taking them on their ride to their final resting place,” the Brownstown woman said. “It’s one of the absolute greatest honors.”
Just behind the caisson is a riderless horse with a backwards boot on each side, signifying the soldier is on his or her last ride and will never ride again.
Her husband, James Lasher, recently walked along guiding the cap horse for the first time.
“It’s very humbling, but also, I think it’s an honor to give them the proper tribute for their service,” he said. “You see a lot of people in awe over how we present, and I think that’s just nice to see people feel the same way.”
For more than a year, the Lashers have been a part of the Military Department of Indiana Ceremonial Unit. Created by Col. Wyatt Cole on April 7, 1974, the unit provides military funerals for Indiana Guardsmen and participates in other events, including parades and inaugurations.
Cole, a full bird colonel, and six other senior warrant officers went to Arlington, Virginia, to see how the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as The Old Guard, operates. They wanted to do the same thing in Indiana.
After returning home with uniforms and horse tack, they found a Civil War-era caisson in a farmer’s field and rebuilt it. A caisson is a wooden wagon used to carry ammunition. That same caisson is used today.
The Indiana group is known as the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment’s sister unit and is the only state to hold that title.
On July 26, Martha served as the outrider and James led the cap horse for Leon Hoevener’s funeral in Brownstown. The 83-year-old Brownstown man had served with the Army National Guard for 42 years and nine months and was one of the seven founding members of the ceremonial unit, having served about 20 years.
Martha said their love of horses and involvement with the military led to their interest in joining the ceremonial unit.
She has been a chaplain with the Indiana Army National Guard for nine years, and James has served for 15 years and is a sergeant first class.
“I learned that we had the horses for the caisson and really wanted to be a part of that,” Martha said. “Then as I learned what they were used for, and that side of it just made it that much more important and meaningful to do it.”
The Lashers went through an interview process and later were able to participate in military funerals and other events.
For military funerals, two or four horses pull the caisson carrying the casket, and there also is a color guard, a drummer or a band, an outrider, a casket team, a cap horse, commanders, officers in charge, a protocol team and a rifle team.
The number of unit members participating in a funeral varies each time because it depends how many are available. All of them are volunteers and live and work around the state.
Martha said they may only have a few days’ notice for funerals, and they spend most of the day before preparing the horses. The horses have to be bathed, groomed and trimmed, and the saddles, harnesses, swords and tack have to be polished.
“In the beginning leading up to it, you are kind of on autopilot,” she said. “We take each funeral very seriously. There’s a lot of time and effort put into intricate polishing of all of the brass and all of the silver. Everything has to be perfect.”
Martha usually serves as the outrider, while James has done all of the roles except driving the horses.
“I don’t know if I could adequately put into words the feeling I have when I’m on that horse,” Martha said. “The outrider about-faces, so I watch the casket loaded, I watch the casket unloaded. We can use the word humbling, we can use the words honor, respect, tribute, but to adequately describe it, I am speechless every time to know what the solider being carried behind us has done.”
It’s also about honoring the person’s family members who sacrificed a lot, Martha said.
“It affects the entire family, and it’s a way to say thank you to not only the soldier that we’re carrying but to their family to say, ‘We want to honor your loved one and you for the sacrifices that you have made,’” she said.
The unit has eight horses that stay in Knightstown. One of them will be retiring in the fall, Martha said.
The horses take their jobs as seriously as the members of the ceremonial unit.
“Every single one of them has a personality, but they know when they are at a funeral, and they know what their job is,” Martha said. “All of our horses have rank. They are considered soldiers, so to them, they are carrying a soldier, and you can see when they put their harnesses on, they know what they are doing.”
James said the horses are on their best behavior at funerals and other events.
“We ride them in practice at the barn and other events, and when it’s go time, they’re like, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” he said.
For everyone involved, it’s about showing pride and patriotism in America.
“You don’t join this unit for the glory. You join this unit because you want to honor, you want to pay respect. It’s about giving back,” Martha said.
“The ceremonial unit is fully supported all the way through leadership in the state to include the adjutant general and the governor,” James said. “They are all very supportive of it. The leadership understands it’s important, too.”
The Lashers plan to stay involved with the unit for years to come.
“A chaplain is there to serve the soldiers in the military. It’s our way of serving the country by serving the soldiers that serve the country,” Martha said. “(Being a part of the ceremonial unit) is just an extension of that, serving the soldiers, even at their final resting time, at their funeral when it’s their last time that we get to pay tribute. I would like to say that we will be with it for as long as we can.”
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For information about the Military Department of Indiana Ceremonial Unit, visit facebook.com/mdicu or in.gov/igr/2435.htm.