A Mighty Display of Democracy

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Brian Ferguson
  • Airman Magazine

Votes were cast and no matter whom you voted for, one thing now is certain, on Jan. 20, 2016, Donald J. Trump will become the 45th president of the United States.


Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. will swear in President-elect Trump at noon during the inauguration ceremony on the west front of the Capitol building, in Washington, D.C. The transition is primarily organized and planned by the U.S. military.

“We’ve been doing this since 1789, since George Washington’s first inauguration,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. George Degnon, deputy commander for inaugural support. “The Continental Army and then the militia lined the streets on the way up to his inauguration in New York City, so we have a very storied history. It’s also the cornerstone of our democracy, the peaceful transfer of power, and we have 1,530 folks from all five service components doing what’s called a street cordon. We will line the whole parade route and will render honors as the outgoing president makes his way to the Capitol for the inauguration, and then we’ll do the same formation and provide the same military honors when the newly sworn-in president makes his way to the White House.”

According to the Library of Congress, Constitutional guidelines for inaugurations are sparse, offering only the date and the words of the oath. All else is driven by tradition. After the oath is administered the president gives an address, usually one stressing national unity.

Thomas Jefferson, in 1801, was the first to be sworn in as president in Washington, D.C., the location chosen for the permanent capital. After his second inauguration in 1805 Jefferson rode on horseback from the Capitol to the President’s House amid music and a spontaneous gathering of mechanics from the nearby Navy Yard – a procession that grew into today’s inaugural parade.

Inaugural events, including parades, have become more elaborate over the years and have evolved into entertainment spectacles. The design and timeline for the inaugural ceremony and celebration is established by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, but the planning and preparation falls to the U.S. military and interagency partners such as the Secret Service, National Park Service, as well as several federal and local agencies.

“Every four years they bring a one-star (general) in to lead the inauguration effort and there’s a history of how it came to be the way it is now,” Degnon said. “It used to be called the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee. They brought a one star in with a staff of about 800, planning from the ground up to coordinate all the efforts. Eight years ago they went to a new construct. This is the second time we’ve done it, but we fall under the umbrella of the Joint Task Force National Capital Region where the full-time staff at Fort McNair liaises and develops the relationships with partner agencies in the district to help make the planning easier. The staff footprint is smaller and we’re here for a shorter period of time, but the inauguration will go off probably better than ever.”

Degnon said that he inherited a continuity book from the last inauguration, but what the book did not cover was all the relationships one must build to make such a complex event run smoothly.

A Washington D.C. National Guardsman, Degnon’s primary job is to liaise with the Presidential Inaugural Committee and the Joint Congressional Committee on inaugural ceremonies to coordinate Department of Defense ceremonial support to the inauguration.

“The planning that we’ve been doing has been six, nine, 10 months in the making and some folks have been doing it further back, in terms of doing the manpower request and the budgeting for the fiscal requirements,” Degnon said. “We did a lot of planning before the election even happened. We are a-political. It didn’t matter who was elected, we basically have a menu of events that the DOD typically support and it’s all based on historical precedence. We’ve been working on it for a long time and now that the Presidential Inaugural Committee is here, they are afforded the opportunity to shape it how they want. They’re going to determine who’s going to march in the parade along with the military elements, they are going to determine the ball and the official events we as DOD support with honor guard, military bands and military assistance in those types of things for ceremonial support.”

One military element marching in the parade is the U.S. Air Force Academy from Colorado Springs, Colorado. Two cadets were chosen from each squadron at the Academy to participate. They have been practicing for weeks, and arrived Wednesday in Washington D.C.

“I’m the commander of troops for the formation and I’m definitely nervous,” said Cadet 1st Class Alec Hubbard. “It’s a big event, happens once every four years, and it’s in front of the commander in chief. We are representing the Air Force and the Air Force Academy, so I want to do it right.”

The planning for the Academy’s participation started back in December. Ninety-nine cadets will march in eight elements with a command section in front. They will march approximately 1.7 miles and perform an “eyes left” to Trump.

“We’ve been practicing all week, and everyone knows what they are doing,” Hubbard said. “I think it will be a good performance.”

Degnon said when planning support for an event such as this, the security of the president is going to take precedence over every other focus.

The inauguration is a National Special Security Event (NSSE). An NSSE is an event of national or international significance deemed by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be a potential target for terrorism or other criminal activity. As the U.S. Secret Service is the lead agency responsible for overseeing security plans for the inauguration, all event planning and preparation by the U.S. military must conform to security constraints.

“As long as they’re able to protect the president, which is all they care about, and you’re able to effectively communicate what you want to do and why, you can typically come up with a solution,” he said. “One of the things about having a long lead time to plan, is you can work out those types of challenges.”

The newly elected president’s day is full. It starts with the president-elect attending a church service at the St. John’s Episcopal Church. Then Trump will make his way to the White House to join President Barack Obama for a ride to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony, which according to the 20th Amendment of the Constitution has to happen on Jan. 20 at noon. After the swearing-in ceremony they will retire for a luncheon in the capital and then the parade will form up.

To pull off such an important and historical event, military and civilian planners continually practice and reshape the execution of the event.

“We’ve been doing rehearsal of concept drills and map exercises to coordinate all the moving parts and the idea is to physically walk along the routes and to see the logistics and coordination efforts required to prevent 2,000 people showing up at a road intersection at the same time causing a backup or a delay in the parade,” Degnon said.

The planning not only requires coordination with the Secret Service, but also, the U.S. Park Police and other federal and local law enforcement agencies.

“We got 6,500 active-duty folks, the National Guard’s going to have about 8,000 folks, then you have all the law enforcement agencies; there’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of people that are doing their job to make this a success.” Degnon said. “That’s one of the great parts about the job is all the interagency engagement and interaction that we do.”

Starting at the northeast end of the Capitol, the parade’s participants will head west on Constitution Avenue before turning slightly right on Pennsylvania Avenue, past the Newseum, the National Archives Building, the FBI headquarters and the Trump International Hotel in the Old Post Office building. It will end at the White House.

The city prepared the parade route by resurfacing the asphalt and painting special blue lines on the road that TV cameras won’t broadcast, but allow the parade marches to stay centered. They also have the ability to pull the street lights out of the center of the road so the marchers have a nice wide road from the Capitol to the White House.

The services are ordered in the sequence of their creation: Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. There will be a joint team at the beginning and end of the parade. It is a grand display that was polished a live parade rehearsal in downtown D.C. on Jan. 15.

Although the parade is a major component of inaugural celebration, it is not the only aspect the military supports.

In addition to the 1,530 military lining the street to render military honors, there will be a team of 76 military assistants escorting designated personnel and dignitaries through the city on Inauguration Day. On Capitol Hill, a team of Marines will do all the coordination for the ceremony and escort people to their seats.

There will be a presidential escort, which is made up of all the services’ honor guards, including the U.S. Army’s Old Guard dressed in uniforms from the American Revolution. It is a visual reminder that, throughout U.S. history, the military has been led by a civilian commander in chief and has supported and ensured the peaceful transfer of power from one commander to the next.

Then there is a huge logistical support element. An army element from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is coordinating logistics, feeding the troops on Inauguration Day and helping service members stay warm. Communications personnel will run cable down the parade route and provide network support for all.

The service members with the honor of supporting the inauguration represent the 2.1 million members in the armed forces.

“Everybody here wants to be here,” Degnon said. “They’re excited to be here and obviously very aware of the historical significance of what is taking place. It really is an honor. Everyone has their personal opinion as to who they wanted, obviously everybody should have voted, but it doesn’t matter who the president is, we still render the appropriate honors regardless of what you think personally.”

What takes place here in the United States on Inauguration Day is unique. The transition has sustained the United States’ democracy for over 200 years.

“You don’t see this in some other country. In other places there’s fighting going on, there’s bloodshed, there’s riots, there’s civil war,” Degnon said. “Here, we’re going to see a peaceful transfer of power from the Democrats to the Republican; President Obama to President Trump, and we’re the most powerful nation in the world with the best military in the world, and we have this democracy that we enable with our military might, but it’s the civilian control of the military which is very special. I think that we’re an example to every other nation in the world”