Fitzgerald’s mule-drawn caisson honors fallen veterans

Brevard residents, Thomas and Denise Fitzgerald provide “solemn pride” for fallen military veterans with their mule-drawn caisson.

Thomas F. and Denise Fitzgerald provide “solemn pride” for fallen military veterans with their mule-drawn caisson at Cape Canaveral National Cemetery.

“We do this for the families who request it so when they first hear the animals’ footsteps, all will recognize the sacrifice of their loved one that will not be forgotten,” Tom Fitzgerald said from his home last month. In the five days prior, the couple had participated in seven funerals or events.

One was the funeral of Jim Staylor III, an Air Force fighter pilot who earned 18 air medals in Vietnam.

“It brought such honor,” said his daughter Kristie Miller of Colorado Springs. “I heard a lot of comments about how special it was to see his remains and the flag. In this COVID season, it elevated the service.”

For centuries, two- and four-wheeled caisson wagons were used to carry not only artillery, but the wounded and dead from battlefields.

Tom Fitzgerald served in the Marine Corps from 1982 to 1986, was a police officer in Georgia and last July retired as information technology director for the Brevard Public Schools. Denise Fitzgerald was a crime scene technician with the Titusville Police Department. Both know the importance of service.

Denise grew up with horses. Tom wasn’t an expert, although his father had a horse as a New York State Trooper. “As a joke, Denise said she’d get me a kid-safe horse. At an event, I saw a mule. I said, ‘That’s what

I need.’ ”

After building their Mims home and barn, they got Jake, a 17-hand draft mule. The couple began “doing rodeo stuff” and 15 years ago, a friend suggested the Civil War re-enactment. They joined the second Florida Cavalry unit, re-creating battles. Mules Tater and Emmet, comparable in size and temperament, trained as their team eight years ago.

“It’s as historic to use mules as horses,” Tom said.

The couple purchased an 1849 replica single-shaft four-wheeled Amish wagon. Tom authentically retro-fitted the wagon to hold a casket or urn led by two animals.

The Cape Canaveral National Cemetery’s 2015 dedication ceremony, where Tom volunteers, showcased the wagon. Kevin Ridgeway, the cemetery director, said the caisson “adds a bit more dignity” to a service. “It’s a beautiful addition.”

The Fitzgeralds also participate in parades, honor guards and historical events. A few include the St. Augustine re-enactment of the Seminole Wars, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Mounted Posse, the Vietnam Memorial moving wall in Wickham Park and the annual Police Hall of Fame induction services in Titusville, which will be held at 7 p.m. May 15.

The couple requests donations, but Tom said, “We have no aspirations of recouping all the money we have (put) into it.” For more information, go to solemn-pride.us or honor@solemnpride.org.