Men and women dressed in replica uniforms from the Continental Army tiptoe across the street to the ceremonial hall at Fort Myer, Va. Rain, falling intermittently forced the Soldiers of the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old guard), U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps inside for the inauguration parade final dress rehearsal. Soldiers joked about splattering their trousers with rainwater, but all were careful to avoid puddles. If the uniforms got wet or stained, there would be no time to replace them before the inauguration.
Formed in February 1960, The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps is a musical support element for the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment and a presidential escort. It exemplifies the importance of music in the Continental Army, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Frederick Ellwein, commander, explained.
“Our most important missions are in relationship with the president of the United States. We play for arrivals for foreign leaders and dignitaries at the White House, and of course we’ll be in the escort formation that will salute the president of the United States after his inauguration, and then we will lead his motorcade to the reviewing stand on the inaugural parade route,” Ellwein said.
Preparations for the inauguration are extensive. Ellwein coordinates closely with other units involved in the parade to ensure training is “tracking precisely” with the mission of the presidential escort. This year is Ellwein’s third experience with the parade.
“Each one has been much like having different dance partners at the same dance,” he said. His second experience with the parade was as the merge control officer, which meant he was responsible for merging bands, floats, marching units and equestrians into one seamless parade, for a total of around 11,000 people.
“(The inaugural parade) is a very carefully choreographed event where each unit is placed in the line of march at a specific time,” he said.
The final rehearsal day on Jan. 16 began with a professional photo shoot of the musicians. After the photos, there would be a uniform inspection. Soldiers gathered in Fort Myer’s Building 232, behind the Caissons Barn, to warm up. People darted from room to room in various states of dress — some with wigs, some without, some still in their ACUs — waiting for inspection to begin.
Master Sgt. Robert Simpson, bass drummer, is in charge of logistics and resource management for the Corps. This will be his third inaugural parade in his 20-year career with the Corps. Simpson, facing day-to-day challenges like making sure the right equipment arrives on time and in working order, is under a little extra pressure for the parade.
“They are making new straps for the inaugural for the drummers. I have to procure the leather (and) the hardware for making those straps,” Simpson said. “I don’t have to make the straps, we have people here who make them, but I have to make sure we get the right kind of leather for it, the right kind of hardware, making sure we have enough.”
He also ensures the bugles and fifes have a good stock of extra parts, and that there are extra drum heads in reserve in case some break the day before the event. “It’s a no-fail mission for us,” he added.
The music for the parade is a new compilation of about 20 songs and the Soldier-musicians have been working hard to get things right. Because the rehearsal was moved indoors, the Corps played their new songs in a stationary formation.
“This will be the first time that we are playing our new parade sequences,” Staff Sgt. Beth Thomas, bugler, said. The musicians have been memorizing their instrument manuals and learning how to march while playing the new music.
Thomas, who has been with the Corps for 6 years, also performed in President Barack Obama’s first inaugural parade. That year, there was a medical emergency inside the capital and the Corps had to wait for 45 minutes in formation before the parade could start, Thomas recalled.
“We couldn’t move and it was really cold outside so that was kind of a hindrance, but hopefully that doesn’t happen this year and we just go out and do our thing and march the parade,” she said.
The rehearsal had the entire Corps in full replica uniforms, circa 1781: tri-corner hats, white wigs, waistcoats, colonial coveralls and red regimental coats.
“Being in full uniform, it presents different kinds of challenges,” Thomas said. “When you dress your site pictures, it is a little different with the different hats and seeing all the red.”
The Sunday before, the Corps reported to Washington for a dress rehearsal on the parade site, at 2 a.m. They will queue up at the same hour the morning of parade day.
Thomas joked that when the parade was over she was going home to take a nap.
Spc. Sophia Hailu is one of the newest members of the Corps. A fifer, she started in August of 2012 after being with an Army band in Heidelberg, Germany, for a year and a half. She said they had a high standard for marching in Germany, but when she arrived here, the marches were broken down into an even greater level of detail.
“They are very specific about getting the phrasing exactly right,” Hailu said. “There are certain points of the music where you lift your fifes all together and that has to be exactly together, and then … there’s a certain time where you lift your foot and put your heel down exactly on the beat.”
While the music may not be challenging all the time, the level of precision associated with the marching can be quite arduous, she added.
“(The parade) is fast-paced because we’re part of the official escort,” Simpson said. “You have to keep a certain pace. Step size has to be so big to make sure we keep that pace, so it’s quite a hump down Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Despite the early morning call, the precise marching standards, the uniforms that need to be kept spotless and the forecasted freezing temperatures, members of the Corps are excited about participating in the parade.
“There’s a kind of special thrill in this, to be in the U.S., as and American, playing for, you know, our president. It’s kind of the greatest thrill,” Hailu said.
“It’s definitely an honor. It’s definitely worth it,” she added.
For more about the history of The U.S. Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, visit http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2013/01/how-happy-birthday-changed-the-u-s-army-fife-and-drum-corps-future/.