Start: 5:30 AM. Finish: 7:00 PM. Time actually spent marching in the inaugural parade: 30 minutes. Was it all worth it?
The possibility of participating in the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Parade hadn’t even entered my mind two months ago. However, a series of well-timed and serendipitous events resulted in the inclusion of my name on a list of returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) who were to march in the parade. I was honored and humbled, both to represent the Peace Corps and to take part in this historic day.
And what a day it was.
At mid-morning, the buses carrying parade participants crossed from the Pentagon into Washington, DC near the Washington Monument. I choked back the day’s first tears amid tingles of history. People were literally walking from Virginia into the District of Columbia!
Roads were mobbed from all sides; crowds of all colors and ages cheered and waved to our passing buses. We turned the corner to a view of The National Mall. It was packed, and buzzed with an energy than defied the news reports. I gazed in disbelief at the sheer number of people who had come together in the freezing cold for this occasion.
As the swearing-in ceremony began, the Peace Corps contingent found itself in a holding tent with the hundreds of others in our second parade division. A line of Marines, perfectly upright, gathered around one of the television screens while high school marching band members milled about in restless energy. Everyone huddled for warmth.
There was something deeply symbolic in every facet of this shared moment: the ethnic diversity, the generational diversity, the variety of backgrounds and professions.
A wave of silence then overcame the tent – Barack Obama was taking the oath of office.
As Judge Roberts uttered “Congratulations, Mr. President,” a release of cheers broke the silence. In a moment of relief, disbelief and joy, a woman close by fought back tears, “I can’t believe it actually happened.”
She was not alone; the energy and emotion was palpable. I believe I even saw some of those Marines loosen their stance and break a smile.
The Main Event: Inaugural Parade
Time finally arrived for us to fall into formation. The parade was about to begin. I exited our tent and watched flag after flag emerge. The day’s brisk wind animated their vibrant colors. That sea of 139 flags, signifying the countries where Peace Corps has served since its founding in 1961, spoke of America’s sense of service to the world around us.
I could have stared at those flags for hours. Visually, it was beautiful. Emotionally, it was staggering.
Those flags stood for the tens of thousands of American Peace Corps volunteers who served across the world, from the tropical heat of Micronesia to the frigid cold of Estonia. Their movement spoke of a spirit of service that still lives – in returned volunteers, in those currently serving and in the ideals of those who will someday serve.
As we approached the beginning of the parade route, the sun disappeared behind the clouds, its strength waning with the day. In the bitter cold, marchers shuffled and bounced to keep warm, while others literally began to turn blue. Several times we all huddled together in the middle of the street in front of the National Archives to share body heat.
Those with internet access on their mobile phones broadcast news and video of the Obamas and Bidens walking down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Then came the call: time to march. I moved. My blood flowed. The adrenaline did too.
Although the parade route crowds had thinned, those that remained were excited. People cheered, waved, snapped photos and yelled out “Peace Corps!”
I heard shouts of “Thank you!!” and “Thank you, Peace Corps!!”
Cue another wave of emotion and choked tears.
Then there was the Presidential viewing stand. Dusk had descended. The Obamas and Bidens stood behind the bullet proof glass, lights shining down on them. They looked larger than life. As for the returned volunteers, we waved excitedly like children and couldn’t help but wear smiles, even if they were a bit tighter from the cold.
More importantly, the Obamas and Bidens appeared genuinely excited to see us! They waved, they smiled, they laughed.
It was just awesome.
President Obama seemed to exchange glances and gestures with one of the leaders of our contingent, Harris Wofford, a former senator from Pennsylvania and a key player in the establishment of the Peace Corps. It was clear from President Obama’s reaction that these men shared a personal connection and a mutual respect for one another.
It was also clear that Peace Corps – tuned to the values of service, cultural understanding and international engagement – struck a chord not only with the leaders in the viewing stand, but also with the crowds.
My conversations that day got me thinking about the collective experience and knowledge of all the Peace Corps volunteers (close to 200,000) that have served throughout the organization’s 48-year history. My thoughts then went to the network of people – the co-workers, students, and community members – that each volunteer worked with in his country of service and the ripple effect of those relationships.
As I watch footage of the parade, I’m struck by the beauty of all those flags from all of those countries, representing all those volunteers and the concept of Peace Corps, the whole of whose service is much greater than the sum of its parts.
A Lesson From the Past
A few flags did catch my eye in particular: Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
Yes, Peace Corps volunteers once served in these countries. Today, the possibility of Peace Corps volunteers again serving there may seem distant to many. On inauguration day, however, their flags flew as a testament to what was – and remains – possible.
In considering whether these countries may one day find their way back onto the Peace Corps active service list, I also made note of the flags from countries that now enjoy independence, but not long ago found themselves part of the Soviet Union.
When John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in March 1961, the world was in the midst of the Cold War. Perhaps it was a pipe dream then to think that Peace Corps volunteers would ever serve in places like Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Turkmenistan or Ukraine.
Today, they do.