Here's How the Military Supports Presidential Inaugurations
By Derek Turner
President Barack Obama had just delivered his second inaugural address. He spoke of ending war and preserving democracy, of equality and unity and a future waiting to be shaped.
He listened as the Marine Corps Band, dubbed The President’s Own by Thomas Jefferson, belted out “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a little help from Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé. He was all set to disappear back inside the heated walls of the U.S. Capitol when he stopped and turned around.
“I want to take a look one more time,” Obama said. “I’m not going to see this again.”
He lingered there, taking it in, smiling a closed-mouth smile. From his perch at the doors of the Capitol, he looked out across the National Mall to the Washington Monument and beyond it to the Lincoln Memorial. The expanse in between was filled with people, waving miniature American flags, bundled against the cold but warmed by the moment. Nearly a million people gathered to witness what is essentially the largest, most elaborate change-of-command ceremony in the military.
Hours later, the hectic day’s festivities nearing an end, the president and first lady Michelle Obama arrived at the Commander in Chief’s Ball. The tuxedoed president addressed an audience ranging from the services’ top leadership to deployed troops participating remotely from Afghanistan.
“Today, we experienced the majesty of our democracy, a ritual only possible in a form of government that is of and by and for the people, a day made possible because there are patriots like each and every one of you who defend our freedom every single day,” he said. “So this little party is just another way to say something we can never say enough—thank you. Thank you for volunteering. Thank you for stepping up. Thank you for keeping us strong. Thank you for always making us proud.”
A Joint Mission
From the moment the president reached the Capitol on Inauguration Day, he was never far from men and women in uniform. Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen lined the path wherever he walked, saluting as he passed. At every turn, a military band performed for him or a marching element honored him or a color guard carried the flag for him. As he paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue—first in a monstrous Cadillac limousine nicknamed “The Beast” and then behind it on foot, hand in hand with the first lady—the president’s 1.5-mile route was flanked by troops in dress uniforms.
The responsibility for ensuring absolute precision from every military element fell this year to Maj. Gen. Michael S. Linnington, commander of Joint Task Force-National Capital Region. More than 11,000 troops, both active duty and National Guard, facilitated the once-every-four-years spectacle.
“The Inauguration Day parade is the largest, most complicated event that takes place in the nation’s capital,” Linnington said, adding that it “requires a multitude of mission partners to work together.”
The planning began simply, with pen and paper, but rapidly advanced to include more than a dozen rehearsals. By December, each part of the parade was paced on a 40-foot-by-60-foot vinyl street map laid out on a gymnasium floor inside the D.C. National Guard Armory. The map depicted an area stretching from Capitol Hill west to the Potomac River.
Parade participants walked the massive map—stepping lightly between scale models of the White House, the Capitol and the Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson memorials—to simulate their units’ movements, allowing them to visualize the timing and interaction of the thousands who would be involved in the real thing.
“The military does rehearsals better than anybody,” Linnington said. “It’s a very good tool for synchronizing events in time and space.”
Calling in the Guard
The U.S. military has participated in every inauguration since George Washington’s presidency, and since Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural, so has the National Guard.
Maj. Gen. Erroll Schwartz, commander of the D.C. National Guard, jokes that he remembers that day well. This was, in fact, his ninth inaugural. The troops under his command had, on average, participated in four, he said.
In addition to more than 5,000 active-duty troops at the inauguration, more than 6,000 Guardsmen from more than 30 states and territories were sworn in as special police, assisting the Washington Metropolitan Police Department with tasks ranging from traffic control and crowd management to communications and medical assistance.
Army Capt. Nick O’Brien, a company commander in the Pennsylvania National Guard, was among the first 350 Guardsmen to arrive in Washington on the Friday preceding inauguration, filtering into the gray basement of the armory to take the oath.
While many Guard units had been preparing for months, O’Brien’s troops had learned only a week earlier that they’d be filling in for another unit.
“It’s not a lot of time,” he admitted. “[But] we prepare for this type of stuff on a regular basis. Our unit has been activated in relief of Hurricane Katrina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
O’Brien’s soldiers were assigned to Southwest D.C. They had full arresting authority, but went about unarmed and expecting little trouble. Four years earlier, 7,000 Guardsmen patrolled the city for Obama’s first inaugural, when an estimated 1.8 million people crammed into downtown D.C. The National Guard did not make a single arrest.
Obama’s second inauguration—with roughly a million fewer people, still the second largest on record—went just as smoothly.
Hail to the Chief
Whether you watched from a grassy spot on the Mall or in front of a television at home, your view of the festivities began with the first notes from the U.S. Army Herald Trumpets. The horns announced the arrival of dignitaries as they walked to their seats on the grandstands erected atop the Capitol steps. There were former presidents and current cabinet members, congressmen and Supreme Court justices. Members of the president’s family made their way to their seats, followed by Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden.
Finally, the president was announced. Chants of “O-ba-ma” rose into the air. The Herald Trumpets blew four Ruffles and Flourishes.
“Approximately four miles from where we are assembled, the hallowed remains of men and women rest in Arlington National Cemetery, they who believed, fought and died for this country,” said Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, during the invocation. “May their spirit infuse our being to work together with respect, enabling us to continue to build this nation, and in so doing, we send a message to the world that we are strong, fierce in our strength, and ever vigilant in our pursuit of freedom.”
The president took the oath of office, the Marine Band played “Hail to the Chief” and on the Capitol lawn, cannons blasted a 21-gun salute.
No Greater Honor
A president’s second inaugural rarely has quite the same celebratory feel as the first, and this one was no different. The crowd was much smaller, but still enthusiastic, buoyed particularly by bright sunshine and a mild winter day. In 2009, on the day Obama was first sworn in, the temperature was in the 20s and made worse by a chill wind.
This year, by the time Linnington escorted the Obamas and Bidens down the Capitol’s east steps to review the presidential escort troops, the temperature had climbed to the high 40s.
The U.S. Army Band, known as Pershing’s Own, performed Bravura followed by four Ruffles and Flourishes and the last 32 measures of “Stars and Stripes Forever.” The Army Fife and Drum Corps, dressed in Revolutionary War garb, played “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
The escort also included honor guard and color guard elements from each of the services.
The review of troops kicked off an hours-long parade along Pennsylvania Avenue. Once the president reached the White House, he ascended a reviewing stand and watched as the rest of the parade passed by. In all, more than 8,800 people marched in the parade, including some 2,000 military members. There were also 200 animals, among them the horses of Army’s Old Guard Caisson Platoon.
“Military support for the inauguration is appropriate, traditional and important in my mind in honoring our president and commander in chief,” Linnington said.
But when the parade was done and the crowds had filed out of town, at the Commander in Chief’s Ball it was the president’s turn to pay tribute to the troops.
“I have no greater honor,” he said, “than being your commander in chief.”
–Derek Turner is a freelance writer and a former senior editor of On Patrol.