Four airmen in camouflage cautiously approached the burgundy, government-issued van parked in the garage of a downtown federal office building. Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Jones, 22, took the lead.
"Cell phones off," barked Jones, an aircraft mechanic stationed at Travis Air Force base in California. "Once we're done checking the outside, then we'll check the underside."
Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Timothy Jeffries instructs the volunteers including Joseph Johnson, right, on staying aware of explosive devices in cars.
(Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
Jones saw a suspicious handprint on the hood of the van. But before his team could back away in this training exercise, another soldier walked around the back of the van and tripped a fishing line meant to simulate a booby trap.
Jones and his colleagues were among the last class of military personnel to get a week-long driver training course to support the 55th presidential inauguration next week. Checking vehicles for explosives was part of the drill.
More than 100 military personnel have volunteered to drive buses, sedans or trucks to ferry equipment, boxed lunches, other troops or the occasional distinguished visitor. They will help pick up stragglers, drop off honor cordons and color guards and move the brass between the swearing-in and the parade.
They have come from all branches of the military, from weekend duty and military bases around the world, from Las Vegas and Seattle and England and Alaska, all to glimpse a bit of history.
"To meet someone who represents us, whether it's in the House or the Senate, we don't often get the chance to do that," said Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Joseph Johnson, 38, a carpenter from Mount Vernon, Wash. "Here, they're walking the streets every day. Even to see the president in person, from a distance, would be a big deal."
They are training to be prepared for anything.
In addition to learning how to check for explosives, it means lessons on how to speak with their superiors. "You'll jump out and attempt to open the door for them and salute," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Richard Chaddock, 39, an instructor formerly based at Fort Meade who helped design some of the course material. "You don't talk to them until they talk to you."
And if a driver makes a wrong turn or gets lost?
"You know that . . . word, what is it, 'Aw, shucks?' " said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Timothy Jeffries, another instructor. "You don't want to do that. Keep your bearings at all times."
With four quadrants in the District, 14 bridges, the often clogged Capital Beltway and three area airports, there's a lot to navigate. Students learn about the two sets of numbered streets and the two sets of alphabetical streets radiating from the Capitol dome. They're told that traffic in the inner loop of the Beltway moves clockwise, in order to better understand radio traffic reports.
The group is taught where to gas up, where to get the vehicles washed and what to do if they get into an accident. Students in the previous class were asked to plot imaginary routes on a laminated map. They chose a route along Pennsylvania Avenue, not knowing it was closed to all but pedestrian traffic in front of the White House.
As they prepare for "game day," Jan. 20, military volunteers are wondering who might be in their vehicles, what hours they will work, what they will eat and whether they will have time off to do some sightseeing, said Army Sgt. Daniel P. Shearer, the transportation logistics liaison for the Joint Task Force-Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, which organized the training course.