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Former Morristown resident lead escort for Sen. McCain's funeral procession

A horse drawn caisson carries the casket of Sen. John McCain across Hill Bridge on the way to the Naval Academy Cemetery for burial on Sunday in Annapolis, Md.Army Specialist Steven Zike, 23, a Morristown native, far left,rode lead position for thecaisson. He is part of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard.

By LUANN MASON - For The Shelbyville News

Twenty-three-year-old Steven Zike, a Morristown native, rode lead position in the horse-drawn caisson that carried the casket containing the remains of U.S. Sen. John McCain to his burial site this past Sunday at the United States Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland.

McCain, 81, died Aug. 25 from brain cancer. He was laid to rest during a private ceremony following a series of memorial events that spanned five days.

Six horses and soldiers of the U.S. Army 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard, pulled McCain’s flag-draped casket on a black artillery caisson from the U.S. Naval Academy’s chapel following a private service to its cemetery where McCain was laid to rest in a plot overlooking the Severn River.

The horses are grouped into three pairs for a funeral procession – the lead pair is in front, the swing pair follows, and the wheel pair is nearest to the caisson, according to information provided by Major Stephen C. Von Jeff, director of public affairs, 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard. All six horses are saddled, but only those on the left have mounted riders, which upholds a tradition started in the early days when the other two horses carried feed and provisions.

Army Spc. Zike had qualified during his more than four years in the Caisson Platoon for positions in other funeral missions, all within Arlington National Cemetery, but he said he “didn’t ever have the chance to do anything big.”

He is part of the Honor Guard stationed at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, and is currently the Ferrier for all horses at the base. Ferrier duties involve the trimming and balancing the horses’ hooves and the placing of shoes on their hooves when necessary.

To his complete surprise at the end of a workday, Zike said his platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Taffoya, approached him to be part of the military escort for McCain’s burial.

“I didn’t even know there’d be a caisson,” he said by phone from the Army base in Virginia. “It was quite an honor. It’s an honor you get from all the blood, sweat you put in with the Platoon.”

According to Zike, Sgt. Taffoya wanted the most experienced people he had to insure the horses were controlled at all times since the horses were not used to areas outside of Arlington National Cemetery.

“I was definitely shocked,” Zike said about receiving the assignment. He said he thought Sgt. Taffoya would pick soldiers “who ride all the time.”

Zike’s mother Rhonda, however, was not at all surprised that her son was selected.

“Steven has a unique ability with the animals. His rapport with the horses was important for the ceremony,” she said from her Morristown home. “It is my belief that he was counted on, heavily, and placed as lead position to anticipate and control potential behaviors out of the horses, (since they would be) in a totally new environment and not Arlington National (Cemetery).”

She watched her son’s “unique ability with the animals” for many years.

“I grew up on a dairy farm,” he said and had years of experience working with the family’s Jersey herd.

Zike Jersey Farm has the oldest Jersey herd in the State of Indiana, according to Rhonda Zike.

Spc. Zike admitted he was nervous the night before the procession to Sen. McCain’s burial site even though he had participated in 233 mounted rides for funerals.

As he prepared the following morning, he said those nerves vanished. With brass and boots shined, and every detail impeccably in place, he was ready, in full dress uniform.

Despite the heat of the day that Zike estimated to be a heat index of 115 to 120 degrees along with 95 percent humidity, he and the others rode at attention and maintained ceremonial postures “giving them all respect” as the McCain family and their close friends prepared “to bury their loved one.”

Zike, the son of Kevin and Rhonda Zike, of Morristown, attended three years of high school in Morristown and graduated in 2013 from Greenfield-Central High School in Greenfield.