WASHINGTON — Of the approximately 5,500 servicemembers involved in next week’s presidential inauguration, four were thrust into the spotlight Sunday as they took on the leading roles for a day.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Serpico D. Elliott stood in for President Barack Obama during the rehearsal for the inauguration ceremony, walking out of the Capitol building to “Hail to the Chief” and applause.
As Elliott, 29, raised his hand to simulate taking the oath of office, Army Spc. Delandra Rollins stood by his side as she played the role of first lady Michelle Obama.
“It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event, so it was good to see it looking down on it instead of looking from the outside in,” said Elliott, who will be working as part of a communications team during the real inauguration. “It’s an amazing feeling, even if it was only for a day.”
The roles of Vice President Joe Biden and second lady Dr. Jill Biden also got the military treatment, with their roles played by Marine Master Sgt. Richard J. Bolin and Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Rachel Washko.
“We’re here supporting the inauguration,” Washko said. “And this is just one of our roles.”
Elliott was chosen mostly based on his resemblance to Obama, right down to his salt-and-pepper hair. Standing at 6 feet 2 inches, the computer networks technician is one inch taller than his boss, and has been told more than once that he looks like his commander in chief.
“It was more of a fitting of the stature, so we could get the angles and everything like that,” Elliott said. “I fit his physical build.”
Once the rehearsals ended, however, it was back to work for the four, who are among the nearly 200 members of a joint task force charged with coordinating all ceremonial military support for the 57th inauguration that has been almost a year in the making. That includes musical units, marching bands, color guards, salute batteries and honor cordons.
About 1,500 troops will line Pennsylvania Avenue on the parade route through Washington on Jan. 21. There will be about 10,000 people marching in it, with each of the branches of the military leading a division of the parade.
“It’s very complicated,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. James P. Scanlan, deputy of inaugural support at Joint Force Headquarters National Capital Region. “The planning probably started over a year ago. There’s a lot of pictures, there’s a lot of reports, there’s a lot of things we look at from previous inaugurations.”
The main challenges will be moving and screening the 10,000 participants in the parade — and Mother Nature, Scanlan said.
“The biggest challenge by far — without a doubt — our enemy is the weather,” Scanlan said. “If the weather is that severe, there would be a call that the swearing in ceremony would be held indoors.”
The last time that happened was in 1985, when temperatures were unbearably cold, Scanlan said.
Despite all the pomp and circumstance, the Jan. 21 inauguration will be purely ceremonial. Obama will be sworn in at a small private ceremony on Jan. 20, the constitutionally mandated date for a presidential inauguration.