The streets of downtown Washington, nearly deserted on a chilly Sunday morning, echoed with the sounds of military music and marching boots today in a rehearsal of the inaugural parade planned for Thursday.
Several thousand men and women from the five service branches marched down Pennsylvania Avenue along the 1.7-mile parade route they will follow accompanying President Bush after he is sworn into office for a second four-year term.
Several blocks of Constitution and Pennsylvania avenues were shut down as the service members marched from the Capitol to the White House. The rehearsal also included marching bands, a phalanx of police motorcycles and stand-ins for President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other dignitaries. A Marine corporal, Matthew Armandariz, a driver for the Joint Task Force - Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, played the role of the president.
As they marched by a reviewing stand, service members saluted the stand-ins for Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, who wore signs around their necks identifying them as the president and first lady. Air Force Tech Sgt. Lisa Arnold, portraying Laura Bush, smiled broadly, braces showing on her teeth, and waved as the marchers passed by. Playing Cheney was Army Sgt. Bryan Shipley.
When a group of Navy marchers swayed just a bit to the left, an officer overseeing their steps called out, "Move to the center!"
Tourists and morning joggers paused to watch the spectacle, a more casual precursor to what military officials call "game day."
Instead of the dress uniforms they will wear on Thursday, most of the military men and women came to practice wearing a variety of jungle and desert camouflage uniforms. Many donned ear muffs and knit caps to keep warm. Officials said 84 percent of the participants were active duty military, 15 percent reservists and 1 percent National Guard members.
The pavement vibrated as feet clad in black leather boots, suede desert boots and patent leather shoes struck the ground simultaneously. The weapons they carried ranged from rifles with bayonets to gleaming ceremonial swords.
Veterans of previous inaugural parades and first-timers alike said they considered it an honor to participate.
"It's a celebration of democracy," said Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Price of Morgantown, W.Va., a saxophonist with the Army's field marching band who played at the 1997 inauguration of President Clinton and at his 2001 departure from Andrews Air Force Base. "I'm extremely proud to be part of that tradition."
About 5,000 soldiers, Marines, sailors, airmen and members of the Coast Guard will participate in the inauguration ceremony. It is a tradition that dates back to 1798, when local militias joined George Washington on his inaugural journey from Mount Vernon to New York City and members of the Continental Army accompanied him to his swearing-in ceremony.
About 1,500 service members will line Pennsylvania Avenue as an honor cordon. Most of the rest will march either as military honor guards or as members of a band.
"It's like the Super Bowl for us," said Lt. Col. Bruce Alexander, an Air Force officer who is spokesman for the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, which received $4.1 million from the Defense Department to coordinate military participation. "You get that same thrill running up your arms. We're showing off for the whole world. We are carrying out democracy here."
For the rehearsal, the units assembled on the Mall near the National Portrait Gallery before starting out about 9:10 a.m. One of the main purposes of the drill was to check out their timing.
For the first inauguration since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, every member of the military marching in the parade has to go through the same security checks required of the public. No metal detectors were on hand for the rehearsal, so they briefly stopped before stepping onto the Mall, as if they were passing through one of the devices.
Several said that as they practiced, their thoughts were trained on distant battlefields.
Staff Sgt. Anthony Taylor, a member of a Marine infantry battalion, has seen duty both in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"I'm worried about those Marines who are there right now," said Taylor, of Buffalo, N.Y. "I hope they all make it back safely."
Sgt. 1st Class Mark Regensburger of Vasser, Mich., who plays tuba for the Army field marching band, found himself thinking of two members of the 82nd Airborne he knew when he was a member of that unit's band.
"Every day, you get up and prepare and train," he said just before lifting his 40-pound instrument and setting off. "Some days it leads to the ultimate sacrifice. Knowing people you've worked beside who have paid that sacrifice is a sobering thought."
Staff writer Nicole Fuller contributed to this report.