Servicemembers Brave Cold in Final
Inaugural Rehearsal

By Sgt. 1st Class Doug Sample, USA

Jan. 17, 2005 — It was freezing here Jan. 16, but that did not stop thousands of servicemembers who took part in a final dress rehearsal for the Jan. 20 presidential inaugural parade.

Air Force Lt. Col. Bruce Alexander, chief of the external media division for the Joint Task Force Armed Forces Inaugural Committee said about 5,000 servicemembers will participate in the parade. Of that number, 2,500 will actually march in the parade, he said, while about 1,500 more will line the streets of Pennsylvania Avenue serving as an honor cordon, or "goodwill ambassadors."

Another 300 are part of the special presidential escort that includes a military fife and drum unit, and about 700 servicemembers are on the JTF-AFIC staff, helping to organize the military participation in the event.

During an early morning news briefing, Alexander pointed out it takes a lot of "synchronized communication and a coordinated effort with a lot of different moving parts," for the parade to be successful. On "game day" as he refers to the event, he estimated about 10,000 people, both civilian and military, will take part in the parade.

"It is a major undertaking to move this many people at a synchronized time. … It takes a lot of planning, a lot of rehearsal," he said. However, for the participants in the Jan. 16 rehearsal, a lot of warm weather would have been nice. Frigid weather at the National Mall assembly area had the thousands of assembled servicemembers struggling to keep warm.

With temperatures in the low teens, military bands and marching units arrived by bus from the Pentagon. Once at the Mall, they quickly filed into one of two large tents, seeking refuge from the cold. Inside, they waited for the "order of march" for their unit or band to be called over a loudspeaker.

The Army will lead the first division of military and civilian marchers, bands and floats. The Marine Corps will lead the second division, and the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard divisions will follow in that order. The presidential motorcade will lead the procession down the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route.

For musicians, Sunday’s cold was a bit of a problem, especially for those playing brass instruments. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Chris Erbe warmed his trumpet by running through musical scales. Other musicians opted instead to keep their hands warm by tucking them deep inside the pockets of their coats.

Erbe said the band’s sound will be affected "a little at first," but "as you play, you gradually get warm and then it’s OK." In any case, he added, it’s worth it. "This cold is uncomfortable, but this is something that I can tell my grandkids about one day. I’m honored to do this," he said.

Nearby, a group of Marines from Marine Barracks 8th and I, a ceremonial unit in Arlington, stands at attention. Putting on a brave face, the Marines act as if they are not affected by the weather. Or maybe it’s not an act.

Said Marine Lance Cpl. Justin Faifer, 24, "It’s only a little cold. We do this all the time," he added. "It’s just a part of our job. Marines come out and perform our duties whether it’s hot out or cold. It just a part of the professionalism we have to maintain."

Still, Marine Master Gunnery Sgt. Nelson Rhone tells his men to try to keep warm and to look out for one another. said he acknowledged concern that with the freezing temperatures his troops could become hypothermic or get frostbite.

Still, knowing they might be in for cold weather, the majority of those shivered their way through the rehearsal wanted to be a part of the inauguration.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Loren Shipley, who serves with the Military Sealift Command Expeditionary Port, a Naval Reserve unit in Wilmington, Del., said he felt it was his duty to be part of the parade.

"I’ve seen inaugurations on television all my life, but I’ve never been in one," he explained. "So I thought this was a nice, neat way, to get to do it. This is democracy in action and I just wanted to do my part."

Others, like Coast Guard Master Chief Petty Officer Gary Sherrill, called being part of the inaugural parade "a rare privilege."

"This is kind of a once-in-a-career opportunity," he said. "I just happened to be at the right place at the right time."

It will be hard not to notice the large military presence at the Inauguration Day parade. It happened for a reason — that’s the way the president wanted it, Alexander said.

"This inaugural has truly been dedicated to the military," he said. "The president has mentioned at at every turn that he wants to recognize those armed services that are keeping our freedoms here at home and overseas. We are showing off for the world, and we’re representing all of those men and women who are overseas doing their business to establish democracy. We are carrying out democracy, the democratic process."

Still, the president’s request for a large military presence won’t make this parade the largest such event in recent inaugural history. That honor belongs to President John F. Kennedy. Alexander said Kennedy had more than 15,000 servicemembers on hand for his January 1961 inaugural parade. That parade lasted nearly five hours on a bright, but windy, 22-degree day that followed a six-inch snowstorm.

And even if the rehearsal’s weather is repeated Jan. 20, it won’t be the coldest one, either. President Reagan’s second-term inauguration in 1985 found the temperature at 7 degrees in Washington.