The Story Behind the “Caisson Kiss” Photograph

By TIMOTHY JAMES LAWSON on 5/5/2020

To a photographer, it was one of those tiny moments that are usually gone in a second but beg to be captured. Arlington National Cemetery photographer Elizabeth Fraser (contractor) was sitting in the passenger seat of a car on the way to the cemetery’s new Millennium section on a cold morning on February 6, 2018, when she spotted an Old Guard soldier giving a few smooches to his horse.

“I thought I had missed the moment,” recalled Fraser. “It was far off and seemed like something that would not happen again so at first I didn’t reach for my camera, but then I saw the soldier continue and I just knew I had to try to capture it.” As her boss parked the car, Fraser struggled to bring her camera to her face; the camera straps were tangled in her seatbelt. She finally freed the camera, raised it and managed to snap just five frames. The result: an almost-perfect image of a soldier tenderly kissing his horse. “There’s a white vignette at the bottom of the picture,” explained Fraser. “It’s the car’s dashboard.”

Once the car was parked, Fraser walked over to the soldier and asked him his name and rank. He was Specialist Colin Martin, with Headquarters and Headquarters Company (HHC) 1/3, Caisson Platoon. The horse, a Caisson Platoon horse, was named Hank, and according to Martin, “Hank could be a pain.” From the moment Martin had brought him out of the barn that morning, Hank had been kicking his rear legs and trotting ahead of Martin.

Martin had brought Hank out as part of a collective training mission, to rehearse how funerals would be conducted in the new section. Fraser was there to document those activities. Martin did not ride Hank, who was serving as the caparisoned, or riderless horse—the horse saddled with backwards boots in the stirrups and a saber, which follows the caisson in some military funerals. Martin simply led him.

Although Martin had only recently joined the Caisson Platoon, he was no stranger to ornery animals. Growing up on a farm in southern Virginia, his family owned two horses and plenty of cattle. He and his wife currently own two dogs and cats. With the platoon, Martin spent about twelve hours a day with horses, from preparing them for morning inspection, to conducting an average of eighteen funerals, and, finally, returning the horses to the barn and cleaning their equipment. “We spend more time at the barn than we do at home,” he said.

On the morning of the photo, while waiting for the mock funeral to begin, the horse continued to act up by trotting in place. “Everyone knows that Hank is a handful,” said Martin. “You gotta work with him.” Martin stood at attention while holding Hank’s reins with one hand, but Hank continued to resist. Frustrated, Martin stepped away from Hank and into a grassy area where he stood, ignoring Hank. That changed the horse’s attitude. “He finally came up to me and wanted to be nice,” Martin explained. “That’s when I gave him the kiss. He was good after that.” And that’s when Fraser snapped her picture.

At the end of the day, Fraser released the image online. A few days later, on Valentine’s Day, the image appeared on the cemetery’s Facebook page with the caption: “All caisson horses need some love.” The image received 17,000 likes. A week later, the Department of Defense posted it on Twitter for International Love Your Pet Day.

“After that,” explained Fraser, “people kept coming up to me and telling me they saw it on different sites. It felt like it was everywhere.” The picture now hangs on the door to the cemetery’s Strategic Planning office. It also appeared in a photography exhibition at Fraser’s alma mater, New York University. People have told her how much they love the photo and have asked her to autograph copies.  

Martin, now a sergeant, enjoys the photograph too. It hangs in his house, on a wall featuing his family’s favorite horses. His wife gave copies to her mother. His fellow soldiers, however, give him a hard time about it. They point out that Martin’s shoulder strap, unique to the Old Guard, had slipped out of place.

The picture is special to Fraser, too. “People can really connect with it,” she explained. “And that’s something I always strive for in my photography – connection.” Fraser has also connected with the picture she took nearly two years ago. “The response has been really overwhelming,” she said. “It’s humbling, to capture something in an instance that resonates with people for so long afterwards. I think ‘Caisson Kiss’ will always hold a special place in my heart.”

CAPTION: Army Spc. Colin Martin kisses Hank, an 11-year-old horse assigned to the Caisson Platoon of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” before conducting funeral training at Arlington National Cemetery, Va. The photograph, taken on February 6, 2018, means a great deal to Martin, who is now a sergeant, and the photographer, Elizabeth Fraser.


Kevin Hymel, Historian at Arlington National Cemetery Author: Kevin Hymel, Historian