Q&A with Saddler & Leathersmith Eugene Burks Jr

Eugene Burks Jr. is the saddler and leathersmith of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard), Fort Myer, VA, the Army’s official ceremonial unit and oldest active duty regiment dating from 1784 and is featured in the upcoming SERVICE episode. Burks makes and maintains leather horse tack for the caissons that gracefully transport the remains of fallen comrades to their final resting place in Arlington National Cemetery and has done so for over 30 years. Mr. Burks took a few minutes to answer a few questions.

How did you learn your craft?
My craft was self taught for the first 11 years of my career. It was a trial and error type thing. I didn’t actually go to any type of schools until I was retired in 1997, to only find out I wasn’t far off the mark in my craft.

What or who are your influences?
My Grandmother and my faith are the two most influences on my life. My Grandmother was a dress maker and she always sat me beside her as she sewed. My faith allows me to be the best that I can.

What does craft mean to you?
It is a total blessing to be able to have a job you enjoy doing for 30 years. That alone is half the pay. And to be able to teach other soldiers the craft is great.

What does the military mean to you?
The military gave me structure which I needed, coming in at 17 years old. It also gives me a great amount of pride to work with young soldiers and to see them grow into fine men and women.

What is the importance of craft in the military?
Crafts across the board is a lost art. You don’t find to0 many things these days that are handmade. No personal touch. It is kind of like home cooking, you know some time and love was put in it. At one point the military was full of all different types of trades which soldiers could use when they got out. Not so much today. I think technology has changed a lot of the crafts the military are in demand of now.

What is horse tack?
Horse tack is equipment used to have control of the horse, keeping in mind the comfort of the first.

Can you tell us about the difference pieces of tack that you make?
I can make over 150 pieces of 1916 Field Artillery Harness. All of the tack is made to original specs. We do have the capability to make modifications for our horses.

What challenges do you face in your work?
The biggest challenge is keeping tradition. People come in at times and want to change things not even taking it in consideration. We have to protect it at all times. It is our history you can’t change it.

Is there a particularly memorable day or moment that you’d like to share?
I hear myself say the right things and what is really in my heart. But to see the passion in my own eyes for the first time for what I have been blessed to do, brought tears to my eyes on the last portion of the your video. That is the most memorable moment so far. Thanks for opportunity to see myself and to confirm I am where I’m suppose to be.

Please tune in for the premiere of SERVICE starting November 2 on PBS (check local listings).

SERVICE episode postcard