Precision, patriotism and a new stage for a beloved Marine tradition
By STEVE HENDRIX | The Washington Post | Published: June 12, 2018
For Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Calderon, a creature of habit in the way only a Marine drill master can be, this will be a summer of radical change.
For 70 years, the Sunset Parade and Silent Drill he currently leads has been as predictable as a smartly executed "eyes right," a fixture of summer Tuesdays at the Iwo Jima memorial near Arlington National Cemetery.
But starting Tuesday evening, during a planned refurbishment of what is formally known as the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial, the ritual of precision and patriotism moves temporarily to a bigger stage, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It promises to be a very different-and much bigger-venue.
"This is going to be very new for everybody," Calderon said. "Even the rehearsals have been drawing crowds of 500 or 600 people."
Those rehearsals have been, in good reveille fashion, in full swing by 7:30 in the morning. For the more civilian-timed evening performance, the Marines expect between 8,000 and 10,000 people to pack the Memorial steps and surrounding viewing areas. That would triple the typical crowd at the Iwo Jima memorial, which is more difficult to reach than a middle-of-the-Mall location teeming with tourists.
"The bigger the crowd, the more people we can tell the Marine Corps story to, the better," said Calderon, the 36-year-old Texan who, as Drill Master of Marine Barracks Washington, is in charge of the Corps grand ceremonial duties in the nation's capital.
His responsibilities include the most somber occasions: meeting Marines killed in action at Dover Air Force Base and presiding at funerals at Arlington. He also oversees "the President's Own, Marine Band," which has been hailing to chiefs since John Adams in 1801, greeting heads of state at the White House and visiting generals from other nations or branches of the military.
Among his duties: the weekly Friday evening parade at the Marine Barracks at 8th and I Streets in Southeast Washington and the Tuesday Sunset Parade at the Iwo Jima memorial, both showcases of the Corp's rich history of martial music and tight formation marching.
The hour-plus programs, still pulled from the 800-plus pages of the Marine Corps Drill and Ceremonies Manual (which Calderon keeps as a PDF on his phone), put scores of Marines in full dress through a routine of mechanical synchronization, presenting, spinning and sometimes tossing their 10-pound M1 Garand rifles with robotic correctness. It's a display of training and discipline dating back to ancient armies that relied on absolute coordinated responsiveness to face their enemies from yards away.
"Every thing we do has historic significance," Calderone said.
The Sunset Parade hasn't changed much since it was begun in 1956, two years after the iconic Iwo Jima sculpture was dedicated by President Dwight Eisenhower. The Drum and Bugle Corps leads off, the battalion marches on, the bugle calls, the fixing of bayonets. The colors are posted, the national anthem played, companies report, all snapped to the exact command.
The highlight is the Silent Platoon, specially trained (and selected for height) units who execute impossibly complicated drills with no shouted orders. This year, 120 candidates began training; only 17 newcomers made the squad. They practice for months with a broadcast metronome before ever appearing in public. And while performances may be cancelled for weather, once they begin nothing can stop them.
Corp. Ryan Watkins, 23, a No. One rifle inspector for the Silent Platoon, remembers gusts of over 30-miles-an-hour at California high school earlier this year that threatened, but never disturbed their spinning weapons. "High winds can do weird things to the rifle in the air, but we take a lot of pride in not letting it bother us," said the Grand Junction, Colo. native. "We want to show them exactly what the barracks and Marine Corps stands for - the pride, the esprit de corps, professionalism and discipline."
The only things that concerns about the parade's summer home is the hard surface of the plaza where they will be marching, much less forgiving than the lush grass of the Marine Memorial.
"Guns are made of wood, and wood can break," Watkins said. "That will be on my mind a bit."
Calderon was in charge of proposing temporary venues for the parade during the Marine Corps memorial maintenance. Seeing the drill in the shadow of the Iwo Jima image was a must stop for many former Marines visiting Washington, D.C., but the brass knew that far more people would come across the ceremony in a more accessible location.
His team considered the area in front of the Jefferson Memorial, as Thomas Jefferson was the president who selected the site of the Marine Barracks in 1801. That proved too small. A stretch of the Mall near the carousel promised to be too crowded. After Calderon spent several mornings in sweats with buds in his ears, marching out the exact routine by himself as puzzled tourists looked on, the Marines picked the plaza in front of the Lincoln Memorial. It's already proved a popular spot with early morning visitors to the Lincoln, Vietnam, Korea and World War II Memorials, many of them veterans.
For the last 12 years, Staff Sgt. Codie Williams has been a bugler at the Barracks, the only Marine post in the country to still blow a live horn for the daily calls of reveille, church, chow, etc. The Dallas native knows that crowd on the Mall will hear her haunting rendition of taps on the soprano trumpet and be taken back to their own service days, or will think of those they have lost.
"Some of them will know someone who was killed in action," she said. "Being in this new place means that taps will reach more people."