It Takes 819 Soldiers to Pull Off a Parade

It's the contingency plans that tend to keep members of the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee (AFIC) up at night.

They worry about how to stage a parade when two feet of that fluffy white stuff arrives overnight. How to rescue a high school marching band on Pennsylvania Avenue when a water main breaks, sending a torrent of icy water down the street. Or, how to remove a horse when it keels over halfway between the Capitol and the White House.

"Don't laugh," says Navy Lt. Arthur Gibb at the AFIC. "It's happened before."

While these aren't common occurrences, the logistical challenge of staging President Clinton's second inauguration on Monday is sufficiently daunting to require the expertise of United States military. Planning an inauguration parade is a little more complicated than, say, planning a Fourth of July parade in Big Bay, Mich.

The event involves some 6,000 participants tromping through the capital, and every state is sending either a marching band or a dance troupe. Ten floats will sway down the 1.7-mile parade route, chronologically arranged to depict the sweep of American history - from 1492 to the present. There are children and elders, the president and other dignitaries, not to mention about 350 horses.

The military handles behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of the inaugural because it is the government's logistical expert. Inaugural maneuverings, evidently, are not unlike moving squadrons from Bangor, Maine, to South Korea or deploying troops to Bosnia.

"These are things we typically do," says Army Lt. Col. William Cardenas, chief of the protocol division of AFIC. "We just don't do them on Pennsylvania Avenue."

Colonel Cardenas and Lieutenant Gibb are two of the 819 military personnel representing the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy housed in a dreary federal center in suburban Maryland, just outside Washington. Their job is to see that everything runs smoothly during the 53rd inauguration - from the staging ground at the Pentagon to departure plans for participants.

The military has been part of presidential inaugurations since US Army troops marched with George Washington from Mount Vernon to New York City on April 30, 1789. The AFIC was formed in the early 1950s, and it reconvenes every four years in April - even before a president is elected. After the election, AFIC works with the civilian presidential inauguration committee - this year a staff of 2,500 - that coordinates all of the social activities.

In its bustling temporary command post, AFIC has set up a "war room" where representatives of the military, the FBI, the Secret Service, and the civilian inauguration committee control the parade.

A phalanx of 10 televisions and five clocks with different time zones fills the front wall. Three large maps, showing varying degrees of detail of the parade route, cover the left wall. People manning the war room will use all this to track events minute by minute.

"We keep everybody on the same page, try to keep the parade rolling," says Gibb, who heads up one of two teams that have been simulating "situations" from the war room. "If an emergency occurs, we can quickly find the closest command post or first-aid station and dispatch someone to deal with it."

The military staff also supports about 2,100 military men and women who will march in the parade, and another 1,200 who will form a cordon along Pennsylvania Avenue.

The staff plans the minutest detail of every activity - including who enters and exits by which door in each van. For the men and women who stand for hours to form the cordon along the parade route, the logistics staff prepares a schedule so they can be rotated out for breaks. "You can't have them hollering, 'Hey, lunch is on,' and running across the street, breaking up the parade," Cardenas quips. "And we just can't set up a temporary mess hall on Pennsylvania Avenue." (AFIC uses nearby federal buildings to prepare hot meals for military personnel.)

But no matter how careful the planning, something unexpected invariably comes up. It usually has to do with the weather. Sometimes it's sad, like the fallen horse. On other occasions, it makes for an amusing memory.

In 1961, for example, Michael Corgan was a midshipman at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He and his brigade came to Washington to march in John F. Kennedy's inaugural parade. They were so proud of their uniforms - dark coats with white hats and gloves.

But, he says, it snowed heavily, so they wore step-on overshoes to protect their spit-shined shoes. About halfway through the parade, the antics began. While marching, the young midshipmen would "accidentally" clip the overshoe in front of them. Those with crumpled shoes were forced to hobble along - or just kick them off. "We called it a flat tire," laughs Dr. Corgan, who now teaches at Boston University. "All along the parade route, you had these crumpled overshoes."

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