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Officers Vie to Escort VIPs

Inauguration Job Is Much Coveted

For President Bush's inauguration Jan. 20, 2005, military assistants, joint honor cordons and joint ushers prepare to go to the Capitol platform.
For President Bush's inauguration Jan. 20, 2005, military assistants, joint honor cordons and joint ushers prepare to go to the Capitol platform. (Tech. Sgt. Cherie Thurlby)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008; Page B01

One young officer drummed his fingers on the bottom of the table during most of the interview.

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Others sat stiffly in their chairs, hands on their knees. Some looked overweight or wore wrinkled uniforms or unpolished shoes.

But last week, as the final military officers vying to be chosen as VIP inauguration escorts cycled through their interviews in an office building near the Mall, their questioners were seeking perfection.

A panel from the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee on Tuesday wrapped up the intensive, months-long process used to identify the ideal people for the high-profile, high-stress jobs. The candidates had to look sharp, sound intelligent and be articulate, diplomatic and self-confident. They also had to know the city and possess that quality known as "good military bearing."

The military assistants, or MAs, as they are called, have the task of squiring the VIPs through numerous inaugural events, and Washington's inauguration traffic maze, while the world looks on.

Family members of President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden -- called SIPs (significant inaugural participants) -- might require escorts, officials said, as might Cabinet-level nominees or other DIPs (designated inaugural participants).

It is a once-in-a-lifetime, much-sought-after job, interviewers said, especially this time, for the installation of Obama, the country's first black president. And all of the candidates were excellent, they said.

But only "the best of the best" make the list being submitted for final selection to the committee brass, officials said. The escorts must be requested by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which determines the size and nature of the inauguration.

The main job for an MA is getting his or her "package" to events on time: to ceremonies, prayer services, the swearing-in, the parade, luncheons, balls. Timing is critical, and failure is "not an option," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Arthur C. Fong, the first- and second-family military assistant coordinator.

Each MA will have a car and a driver, who for this inauguration will have a cellphone with a global positioning satellite device allowing the car to be tracked at a command center downtown during the inauguration, Fong said.

The MA must know which streets to take, which entrances to use, where to park and what credentials will be required.

The committee tries to strike good background matches between the MAs and VIPs. In addition, the MAs "will have to be smart on the person they're escorting," Air Force Capt. Robert Millmann, of the committee's ceremonies directorate, said.

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