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National Guard Prepares for More Inaugural History

By Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith
Special to American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., Jan. 14, 2009 – The 372-year-old National Guard has provided inaugural support for every American president since George Washington. This year won’t be any different.

Much like the militiamen who crossed their states' borders to escort the first president to his swearing-in ceremony in Manhattan in 1789, today's Guard members have traveled to the District of Columbia from their home communities.

Participating states include Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa and New York, in addition to the District of Columbia’s National Guard. The Guard members will help to provide a safe and ceremonial inauguration for President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 20.

It's a service that the militia has provided to every American president, Guard historians here said.

"The military presence at the first inauguration was the militia," said Renee Hylton, National Guard Bureau historian. "The militia was a very important local institution.

Militia members had fought under Washington in the Revolutionary War, so it was natural they would want to help to install him as first president under the new Constitution. Though no parade was planned, the militia was the only military part of the procession of dignitaries who accompanied Washington on the streets of New York City.

Months of hard work and planning, driven by tradition and today's security environment, have joined the Guard with civil authorities, active military components, the Secret Service and others to help bring Americans' vote for Obama to fruition.

A record number of more than 7,000 citizen-soldiers and -airmen are involved in missions to support the district's civil authorities for inauguration-related parades and ceremonies. Another nearly 3,000 are in direct support to Virginia and Maryland as they assist with traffic and other activities in the area. It's a vast increase from the number of militia that escorted Washington.

"For the first inaugurations, nobody was really sure what was the appropriate level of pomp and circumstance," Hylton said. "Tradition built up slowly over the years. The first parades were much smaller, but had proportionately more bands and music. … It was a big spectacle for the public. There was no television; a parade was a big deal."

For at least one state, providing civil and ceremonial support to grand-scale celebrations is "just another day," Army Lt. Col. Rich Goldenberg, a New York Guard spokesman, said.

Goldenberg explained that New York Guard members often are involved in large-scale celebrations that draw millions of people to the city.

"We have been marching in the St. Patrick's Day parade for more than 150 years,” he said. “It's nice to be a part of our city's celebration and history. And another role is our state's New Year's Eve celebration at Times Square, where the Guard provides support to civil authorities, including Army military police and Air Force security forces."

But the presidential inauguration is historically unique, Goldenberg said, because the Guard is involved in both the ceremonies and support to civil authorities.

"I cannot think of another significant event where the Guard was both a key component of the celebration and of its security," he said.

Guard members will march in the official inaugural parade, a tradition begun by members of the Virginia militia when Virginian James Monroe was inaugurated in 1817. The Guard's musical units, bands, color guards, salute batteries and honor cordons will add to the ceremonies.

The recently reactivated Massachusetts Army Guard 54th Volunteer Regiment, a ceremonial unit representing the first black Civil War regiment, will march in honor of the nation's first black president. The 54th Massachusetts, which suffered heavy casualties assaulting Confederate Fort Wagner on the South Carolina coast, was portrayed in the movie "Glory."

Still larger numbers of Guard members will provide mission support to civil authorities, including communication, transportation and security. Guardsmen also will stand by with crowd-control units as well as quick-reaction forces and chemical, biological and radiological response experts. Still others will provide logistical support.

(Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith serves at the National Guard Bureau.)

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