NEWS | Feb. 23, 2021

Up Close at the 59th Presidential Inauguration

By AIR FORCE TECH. SGT. RYAN CAMPBELL 158th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Many of us came out of 2020 expecting 2021 would start to show a light at the end of the tunnel. However, within the first week of January things went horribly sideways.

I remember missing out on documenting the 2016 inauguration, but this time 25,000 National Guardsmen would converge on Washington D.C. to provide extra security in order to ensure a peaceful transition of power. The imagery that came of it became pretty surreal to see and even more surreal to capture.

Driving from my home in New York on Jan. 15, I wasn’t quite sure what I would be seeing. My first sight was what seemed like hundreds of Guardsmen in front of the D.C. armory, with the front lawn being more like a parking lot for Humvees.

Each day was spent tracking media requests from outlets like CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg, Military Times, all wanting to know what we were doing. I spent the first full day exploring the Capitol Hill area, fully surrounded by miles of fencing.

Roads that normally would be full of traffic, and buildings that would be full of visitors and tourists were now made as an almost temporary home for the Guardsmen on duty, to take a break and relax during long shifts. Inside the capitol building, cots were neatly laid out while outside the massive flags to set the backdrop for the inauguration were being hung.

Getting a tour of the Capitol from a Capitol Police officer, I saw damage to the building that was still present, while at the same time TV cameras and lights were being set up to capture the ceremony that was just a few days away.

There was constant action, no matter if it was middle of the day or middle of the night. Through all of this, life continued outside of the fenced off areas, with the local citizens seeming more curious about the National Guard being there than anything else.

Rehearsal for the inauguration was on a Monday and with stand-ins for all the participants, it was easy to get up close to it. I ended up on the inaugural stage, probably the only time I will ever do such a thing.

Things seemed to run very smoothly around the capitol, the Guardsmen didn’t seem to find themselves part of anything other than the routine nature of their mission. All in all, people were alert yet at ease with how things were going.

Seeing the inauguration ceremony itself was incredible, even though access to the Capitol grounds was not possible during the ceremony. Despite watching it from the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial across the street, I was still there seeing it, which normally would not be such a profound thing.

Except this time, spectators were not allowed into the area to watch. While the National Mall would normally be full of people, this time it was turned into a “field of flags” with thousands of flags from all states and territories creating an impressive display.

In the end, there was a peaceful 59th presidential inauguration. The imagery that came from it is monumental, the first time the military encamped in the nation’s capitol since the Civil War.

To document the experiences of the Airmen and Soldiers that came down here is definitely up there as a career highlight. It had been many years since I was last in Washington, D.C. and what a time to come back. To be that up close to seeing the wheels turn that make such an impressive event happen was remarkable.

Even more remarkable were the Guardsmen who helped ensure it all happened successfully.