By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (Nov. 26, 2008) -- Every four years the United States elects a president, and each time, members of the armed forces have participated in the inaugural events.
Military participation dates back to the inauguration of George Washington. On April 20, 1789, Soldiers, local militias and war veterans escorted the president to his swearing-in, then held in New York City.
Today, the Department of Defense stands up the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee well in advance of each presidential election. The members of the AFIC, a committee of Joint Forces Headquarters, National Capital Region, orchestrate the participation of today's military in inaugural events.
During the 10-day period, January 15-24, the military provides ceremonial support to the presidential inauguration with musical units, marching bands, color guards, salute batteries and honor cordons. The AFIC itself will eventually be made up of more than 700 military personnel. But by inauguration day, as many as 5,000 servicemembers will be ready to participate. Their presence and activities are coordinated by the AFIC.
The AFIC works with two other committees to plan the events that surround the inauguration of the president. The first, the Presidential Inaugural Committee, a non-profit organization that is formed after the general election and represents the president-elect, plans and funds the parade following the swearing-in of the president and the evening's celebratory balls. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies plans the actual inauguration event.
The AFIC itself works with both committees, lending support wherever a military presence is needed.
"What we do is provide ceremonial support to those two organizations, where they ask, and within Department of Defense guidelines," said Sgt. Maj. Brian S. Picerno, who serves as the senior enlisted advisor for AFIC members. It is his role to take care of the more than 700 military members, including more than 200 Soldiers, who will eventually be part of AFIC.
Despite the AFIC's proximity and participation in what is a very political process, Picerno is quick to point out that AFIC itself is a non-political, non-partisan committee-without an opinion about who wins the election.
"We are totally non-political," he said. "We don't even discuss it in here. People may discuss it outside of work, but it's pretty much one of the rules we established when we came here: we are not here to influence or discuss-we're here to support the president-elect once he is selected."
The AFIC stands up well in advance of the inauguration. As early as December 2007, more than a year before the 2009 inauguration, members of the AFIC were already being moved into temporary offices at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. In June, the group moved to its "permanent" headquarters, the Mary E. Switzer Memorial Building, also in Washington. There, members of the AFIC set up the new headquarters, which will serve the committee until it is disbanded after the inauguration.
"We had to bring troops in here to get us set up," said Picerno. "There's a whole lot of work in getting us from Fort McNair to here-furniture, transportation, the infrastructure itself. There were no telephones, no networks. There were literally hundreds of manhours needed to set all that up."
Sergeant Richard P. Grossman volunteered for the AFIC and reported in December. He is stationed out of Fort McNair and serves as a senior supply sergeant for the Center for Military History there. At AFIC, he serves as the property book non-commissioned officer-in-charge, accounting for all property owned or borrowed by AFIC. He helped convert the AFIC headquarters from a bare-bones facility to a fully functioning military operation.
"There's a lot of planning that goes into this," he said. "The neatest part of it all is seeing how it goes from nothing to something. When we started here, we had four walls and a roof-there was no furniture, no equipment, nothing."
In addition to the furniture that was brought in, AFIC also brought in some 254 computers for its staff, and another 118 are on the way. None of those computers could be networked because there were no network cables running though the 50-year-old Switzer Building. Specialist Darian J. Whittaker, stationed at Fort Dietrich, Md., helped install those networks, and now provides communications, information technology, and help desk support to AFIC. He said so far the work hasn't been tough.
"I'm enjoying this so far, it's not too hard," Whittaker said. "Plus, this is an opportunity of a lifetime-why pass it up?"
The AFIC, like other joint operations, follows something similar to the general staff system used by the Army. There's an AFIC-1, for instance, that performs personnel functions. Specialist Aaron C. Allen, a personnel clerk from Fort Myer, Va., volunteered to be part of the AFIC. He said he's been challenged by the joint nature of the assignment.
"The hard part for me is the different way each service conducts their evaluations and boards," he said.
Despite being a temporary assignment, participation in AFIC does last more than a year for many involved. Those Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen will need to have their personnel records maintained during the temporary duty, and many will also earn awards or promotions. For Allen, having so many services involved makes it difficult to do a job that he had once done only for fellow Soldiers. But the experience is helping him learn, he said.
"Each service has its own way how they word things," he said. "When I first started here at AFIC I was just thinking Army. I was sending stuff back to the Air Force saying it was wrong, but in actuality it's how the Air Force does it. That's the biggest thing for me, the joint thinking ... how every service is tailored and thinking more than just Army. This is my first time working in a joint environment and that's what sold me is to get the experience working with joint services at this young point in my career."
Allen said he'll be taking back some of that joint experience to his home station, where he'll try to impart some of his new knowledge to those around him.
"This is like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, to come in as an E-4," he said. "I usually don't have that much responsibility, but to get that responsibility here and to learn to manage and take care of things-that helps build my career. I can take that back to Fort Myer and teach those below me and above me what I've learned, I hope, because some of them may have never worked in the joint environment."
The AFIC-3 coordinates security operations among participating military units and with other federal agencies, in addition to providing credentialing to those who participate in inaugural events. And the military, through the AFIC-4, provides logistics support, including transportation for members of the PIC, other VIPs and members of the president-elect's family.
The military's expertise in protocol makes them ideal candidates for providing transportation support. Also, said Picerno, providing transportation support gives the military a certain amount of visibility-so it's of benefit to the military to participate.
More importantly, the military can, and is, accustomed to working people day or night-something that will need to happen during events surrounding the inauguration.
"Our people are trained on all kinds of routes," Picerno said. "We'll be using Blue Force Tracker and all kinds of communications in case there are accidents or emergencies."
Communications support for the AFIC, to include more than the computers they use in their offices, such as the radios and other communications networks needed for coordinating so many personnel, is provided by the AFIC-6.
Staff Sgt. Jose I. Ramirez, a communications noncommissioned officer stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, will provide communications support to military personnel on the ground who need to keep in touch with the inauguration day command center.
"My job is going to be to make sure everybody has their communications equipment and that it is working," he said. "If it goes down, I've got to fix it."
Ramirez said he realizes the significance of working as part of AFIC, but for now he is more impressed with what he is learning and what he can take back to his unit.
"I'll get a lot of experience out of this, what I've done as far as the networks," he said. "There's distribution of assets and the managing and supervising of the Tactical Operations Center group. Yeah, I'm working for AFIC, but I'm focused now on my day-to-day job and not worrying about who gets elected."
During "game day," Ramirez will likely be assigned to work in the forward command post at the corner of 3rd and Pennsylvania Ave., in Washington. There, he'll monitor communications and networks from the command trailer-and have a good view of the parade. He said the opportunity to work at AFIC has been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him.
"A lot of Soldiers get tired of the field, of the deployments," he said. "But sometimes there's opportunities that Soldiers don't know about. Before this, I had no idea the AFIC even existed. But every four years there's an opportunity for Soldiers of all ranks and specialties to come up here and fill a position and be here in the nation's capital-and that's a pretty nice perk for being a servicemember."