A riderless horse and a caisson can often be seen forming a silhouette against the skyline at Camp Nelson Cemetery in Nicholasville, Ky. Camp Nelson Honor Guard claims to be one of the rare honor guards in the nation that uses horses in its funeral services.
Tracy Lucas runs the Camp Nelson Honor Guard (CNHG). He said CNHG has performed more than 800 funerals since it began doing military services at the national cemetery in 2008. The equine services offer added symbols of respect to the deceased.
The inverted boots, for example, and the horse that follows the casket symbolize the deceased "giving the final salute to his men as his body is being pulled by the caisson," Lucas said. The "enhanced" services are available to all veterans, regardless of rank.
Though the non-profit is separate from Man o' War Post 8 in Lexington, Ky., Lucas said the Legionnaires there have made the services possible.
"They fostered everything and helped us get this started. If it hadn't been for American Legion Man of War Post 8, there wouldn't be a Camp Nelson Honor Guard," Lucas said. "Legion members are our pall-bearers, they do our rifle-detail. We do horses, and we do all the artillery."
The organization runs on donations and volunteer work. They do services for veterans, spouses of veterans and their dependents. Though they request a $250 honorarium to pay for overhead, they do not turn anyone away because of finances.
Though Lucas said all the funerals are special, Bill McMillan's stands out to him because it was the first KIA ceremony CNHG performed.
"That was one of the most emotional times of my life, one of the most challenging times of my life — bringing back a hero who was actually killed in action," Lucas said. "Every funeral I do is special to me, and I'll never forget it because that is somebody that is a true American hero. They’re all special. But that was my first one. It's kind of like your first-born child, you never forget that one special moment."
He remembers the helicopter flyover to honor McMillan as the flag was presented. Lucas remains in touch with the family.
The Christmas tree in the CNHG office holds candy canes because McMillan's mother told Lucas that was their family tradition. The McMillans have replaced the angel on top of their tree with Bill's hat. Lucas uses his helmet as a tree-topper.
But each ceremony is tailored to the individual and is memorable. Lucas also remembered a burial that had clowns from the Masons as the pall-bearers.
"You would think this is crazy, but I'll tell you it was heartfelt and I’ll never forget it," he said.
The funeral isn't the only service CNHG provides. Several years ago it began helping active-duty military connect to family by setting up Skype dates in its office. They also participate in Wreaths Across America.
Lucas is an Army veteran whose military career was shorter than he hoped it would be.
"I still wasn't ready to quit serving," he said. Now his service is to those who have served.
"People really are moved by the ceremony, the visual part of it. They really burn images in people's minds and in their hearts. . . . Things like that are important. Giving a hero a final farewell with respect and honor—that's got to be worth something. And it means everything to me," Lucas said.
For more information, visit http://campnelsonhonorguard.org/