FORT BRAGG, N.C. - On an arctic yet historic day in the nation's capital, 90 members of Company B, 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division marched in the inaugural parade to honor the country's 44th president - Barack Obama.
The men of Co. B, the Blackhearts, represented the more than 450,000 active-duty Soldiers of the United States Army in the parade held Jan. 20. The unit was chosen because, as part of 1st Bn., 504th PIR, it was the first unit of the surge in Iraq and because, in company commander Capt. Scott N. McKay's words, "the unit has shown itself to be a professional organization."
The Blackhearts, along with the other companies in 1st Bn., 504th PIR, converted one of the most violent and strategically important parts of Baghdad - Rusafa - which had not been controlled by an American unit in over a year, to a thriving bastion of peace.
"It was a true honor to be selected to represent all of the Soldiers in the Army. The opportunity to participate in an event of this magnitude is a once in a lifetime opportunity," McKay said.
He said the experience of coming to Washington, D.C. and participating in the inauguration was humbling for him and his paratroopers. It was the first time many of the troopers had been in the nation's capital. The troopers were taken aback, when, during a visit to Arlington National Cemetery the day before inauguration day, they were greeted by applause, gratitude and requests for photos. The troopers were able to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and visit the eternal flame in honor of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy while at Arlington. They also paid their respects to their fallen comrades from the Global War on Terror buried there.
The Blackhearts were afforded the opportunity to tour Fort Meyer, home of the Old Guard, during their visit. They got to see the caissons barns and learned about the special missions the caissons perform every day. The 984th MP Detachment (K9) on post gave the Blackhearts a tour of the kennels and a demonstration of the capabilities of the military working dogs. Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Engler, a Blackheart platoon sergeant, became the chew toy for a 65-pound Dutch shepherd.
"That dog only weighs 65 pounds, but hits like a tank!" remarked Engler.
After Co. B's sightseeing tours, it was time for the paratroopers to make final preparations for the biggest event they had ever been a part of.
January 20 was the momentous day. The enormity of the moment hit the paratroopers when their buses pulled up to the parade's staging area and they saw people as far as the eye could see on every side of the Washington Monument. An estimated 1.8 million people filled the capital that day to see the nation's first African-American president take the oath of office. As the Company B paratroopers marched before the massive throng, they were greeted by shouts of "All the Way" and "Airborne."
"It was great to hear all the people cheering for us," said Pvt. Jacob Austin, an infantryman in Co. B. "They knew who we were. I heard someone say, 'That's my old company!' People were saying (good) stuff about paratroopers. It was definitely a neat experience."
The parade culminated with the passing of the review stand and the traditional salute and, "all the way, sir" from McKay to President Obama.
"It was good to see him there," McKay said of the newly elected president. "He was still taking it in - his role as the commander in chief. It took him a few seconds to remember to return my salute."
Meanwhile, the paratroopers were focusing on looking sharp.
"Even though it was cold and it was a long walk and our arms were hurting (the troopers only switched arms with their weapons once) we didn't drop them because of our pride. We just kept marching," said Spc. Christopher Sorenson, a Co. B infantryman.
"You could see the discipline in us. None of us put our weapons down. We kept marching straight despite the road hazards," added fellow Co. B infantryman, Spc. Jason Clark. "I'm pretty sure we were the only unit that didn't have anyone fall out."
Going to Washington, D.C. and participating in the inauguration of the 44th president was an experience they will never forget, the paratroopers said.
"It was a great experience for a group of Soldiers - most of whom have deployed multiple times - to enjoy the benefits of a free, democratic society by participating in an historic event," Mckay said.