Soldiers and airmen from the Pennsylvania National Guard are processed and sworn in as special police by the Metropolitan Police Department at the District of Columbia National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 18. (Mike Marones / Military Times)
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As the world watches the commander in chief inaugurated for a second term Jan. 21 in Washington, D.C., some 5,500 service members are expected to take part in the pageantry, both in the parade and behind the scenes.
"It's a great way to showcase the military and a great way to honor the commander in chief, a great way to recognize civilian control of the military and celebrate all that's good about our great democracy," said Army Maj. Gen. Michael Linnington, commander of the Joint Task Force-National Capital Region.
JTF-NCR coordinates all military ceremonial support for the 57th presidential inauguration, which will see President Obama and Vice President Biden beginning new terms in office.
As a joint service committee, the task force includes members from all branches of the armed forces, including reserve and National Guard components.
"It's something our country celebrates every four years, just like we in the military celebrate changes of command every two or three years," Linnington said. "It sends a message to the world about our democracy and adherence to the directives of the commander in chief."
Organizing the complicated series of events involves a total of 287 service members, some from each branch, as augmentees assigned temporarily to the task force — some as early as last spring. JTF-NCR supports the private Presidential Inauguration Committee and the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.
"All the services sent personnel to put this together, and they sent the A-team," said Army Command Sgt. Maj. Dave Turnbull of the JTF-NCR. "For most of them, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, totally outside of what they've done in their military career. The planning and preparation is critical to make it a smooth and seamless event."
Thousands of military personnel will march in the parade, man the cordon, escort officials, play music and act as color guards. Behind the scenes, they will handle logistics and communications.
Army Capt. Joshua Taylor, Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Julius Spain and Senior Chief Builder (SCW) Joseph Pehanick — all from the logistics and engineering cell — told Military Times that troops are tackling everything from clearing snow from the U.S. Capitol steps, if needed, to providing hot coffee to the cordon.
Planning begins a year in advance and involves more than 30 local, state and federal agencies.
Spain, a legislative adviser at the Pentagon, said his team is providing a color guard and band for the inaugural ball.
"One of the challenging things was to take 26 people from different occupational sets and figure out who's good at what, and putting them in key areas," Spain said.
"The challenging part for all of us was coming together as a joint command because we've been pulled from all over, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard," said Pehanick, a Seabee with 7th Naval Construction Regiment. "Right now, we're finally running pretty smoothly, and we've overcome a lot of obstacles, and it's a team effort."
"The different services bring different perspectives, and I've learned a lot of things," said Taylor, of the 7th Sustainment Brigade, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Beyond the active-duty personnel, several thousand guardsmen from the District of Columbia and 16 states will provide law enforcement and crowd- and traffic-control support.
As large as it is, this year's inauguration is smaller than in 2009, which marked the historic swearing-in of the first black president. The pageantry has been scaled back in recognition of the country's bleak economic straits.
The official activities will span three days, starting with a National Day of Service on Jan. 19 and culminating Jan. 21 with the swearing-in, the parade and two inaugural balls. Last time, it was four days of events.
The number of military personnel overseeing the event was also streamlined, saving the Defense Department 22,000 man-hours.
"We're trying to save resources and still provide appropriate ceremonial support," Linnington said.
A giant parade
Roughly 700 military personnel will be at the swearing-in, acting as ushers, assisting VIPs and manning a presidential salute gun battery.
After the swearing-in ceremony, special troops will lead the 10,000-person parade as part of the Presidential Escort, a smaller, distinct procession that includes the president and vice president as they travel from the Capitol to the White House.
Air Force Brig. Gen. James Scanlan, deputy for inaugural support for JTF-NCR, said the cooperation between the services to support the inauguration mirrors "how we operate in today's joint environment."
"In 2013, almost every operation, every challenge we face is as a joint force," he said. "Our strength is our diversity, and everybody brings something different."
The parade will include 2,500 troops, as well as 7,500 civilians, from all 50 states. Roughly 1,550 military personnel, some from each service, will provide the cordon that lines the parade route — about 30 charter buses full of troops, according to Scanlan.
The team will ensure 10,000 people are in place to be screened by the Secret Service outside the Pentagon and staged in their marching order at the start of the route. The team will usher them along the route and put those people onto buses at the end.
In the days before the event, JTF-NCR will conduct a full-scale dress rehearsal on the streets of Washington. Last month, it held a planning drill on a 40-by-60-foot map, much like a combat unit would conduct a "rehearsal of concept" drill.
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michelle Watson, who is supervising the street cordon, said she's ensuring it makes a smooth, choreographed and professional presentation to the president.
Each division of the parade is led by a different service, and the cordon lining the street will salute as each service's element passes.
The cordon must be in place at 9:30 a.m. on the day of the parade, and troops may take a break for warming and feeding. But they must be back on the street for the length of the parade, from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
"People just think you just stand out there, salute and go to parade rest, and it's just easy. But you have to take into account that these people are warm and fed," Watson said.
After experiencing the 2005 inauguration as a participant and the 2009 inauguration as a spectator, Watson is requesting hand and foot warmers for the cordon.
"I can just imagine standing out there in a street cordon for six or seven hours. I can definitely empathize with the guys out there," she said. "We're in the military, we've been in cold weather before, and the mission's going to get done no matter what the weather is."
More than 2,800 organizations submitted applications through the JTF-NCR website asking to march in the parade. The task force, in turn, recommended 317 of those to the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which is appointed by the president-elect.
The group Military Spouses of Michigan was invited to march; one of its members is Ariana Bostian-Kentes, whose same-sex partner is an officer in the state National Guard.
Bostian-Kentes may be the first such partner to march in an inaugural since Obama signed legislation in 2010 to repeal the policy that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
Bostian-Kentes, who also serves as president of the Military Partners and Families Coalition, said that four years ago, openly marching in a parade would have been unthinkable, as would membership in an organization called Military Spouses of Michigan.
"This is one of the first times I get to openly show my pride as a military partner among the other spouses, partners, service members and veterans on a very public stage," she said. "I can take my place alongside them and the person I love, showing my support for the military, military families and our president."