Why they march: Air Force band, honor guard and logistics ready for Inauguration Day

On Friday, Master Sgt. Jay Heltzer will play the bass trombone in the Air Force Band for his fourth inauguration.

“I wouldn’t say nerves come into play more of just excitement of the actual day,” he said. “As bandsmen we do a lot of different marching opportunities, parades and ceremonies so a lot of it feels comfortable. But when you do make that final turn before the reviewing stand and there is the commander-in-chief in front of you, it definitely is an exciting moment.”

Heltzer is one of nearly 1,000 Air Force personnel, including members of the Air Force Band and Honor Guard, Air Force Reserve, Air Force National Guard and Air Force Academy, who will be on site for the 58th Presidential Inauguration.

Many of the volunteers know the routine well. But year after year, it’s a special experience.

“We turn the corner on to Pennsylvania Avenue and the streets are lined with service members in all of our branches of service and of course military agencies from across the United States who are standing shoulder to shoulder on each side of the street, I just beam with pride to see all that,” said Chief Master Sgt. Rob McConnell, the flight chief of the Air Force ceremonial brass. He’ll play the trumpet in his sixth inauguration.

The band and honor guard rehearses a few times before the Inauguration Day. Most band members perform often for memorial or funeral services, but for the Inauguration, musicians from across the Air Force band ensembles and regional bands join the group.

“Marching is a regular part of what we do, so whether it’s just a 15-piece band marching through Arlington National Cemetery in the middle of a funeral or for the Inauguration, the form is the same, the musical concepts is the same except this time there’s a lot more people that will be participating,” Heltzer said. “We do have to work together to be one, full ensemble.”

In total, about 1,300 Air Force members will help out with the event, and most of them are volunteers.

“We had to send people away to come in at 1 o’clock in the morning and be here all day,” said Col. Beth Larson, director of operations, plans and requirements for the Air Force District of Washington. “We’re excited to do it. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for a lot of these guys.”

Planning for the Inauguration usually begins at the end of the last one, when Air Force organizations discuss what went well and what needed improvement,

More specific planning started in earnest about a year ago, when the service puts in its requests for additional personnel.

Logistics, planning and security support personnel work off site with members of the military services, along with the Coast Guard, Homeland Security Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency and others.

“That’s 353 Air Force personnel, who are volunteers from the local area,” Larson said. “[They] come out all day on Sunday for rehearsal day and then all day starting at 0100 on Thursday for the actual  ceremony. They’re going to put in about a 20-hour day.”

It’s a big undertaking. Air Force planners have to bring in more radios, buses and communications equipment for the day of the event. They’ll stay on site all day to transport the band, honor guard, security and medical staffs to the National Mall.

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Col. John Teichert, the 11th Wing Commander at Joint Base Andrews, will lead the honor guard in his first inauguration.

He remembers standing with his wife and watching the ceremony along the parade route in 2001.

“My heart swelled with pride and patriotism on that day, and I want to make sure that our team … allows those who watch us to feel the exact same way,” he said.

The honor guard participates in ceremonial events often, Teichert said Friday’s events have more meaning.

“I haven’t marched, frankly, since ROTC when I graduated in 1994,” he said. “Fortunately, I have the best in the world, the Air Force drill team, who’ve been training me one-on-one. We spent some time yesterday training, because we want to look good [and] provide all of that background support so that we can be world class for our next president.”

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