Written by: Major Daniel R. Erskine, US Army Retired
After years of dreaming and planning, the Bettye Davis East Anchorage JROTC cadets made the trip from Ted Stevens to Ronald Reagan international airport for a Washington DC Senior Leader Experience in early Oct 2022. Starting off with a red-eye, it took three flights taking over 15 hours of travel; nine of which were airborne. Six cadets, led by the Thunderbird Battalion Commander Cadet Lieutenant Colonel Erin Gates embarked on a beautiful fall visit to this historic capitol area for a little over 3 days. Seemingly short, the tightly scheduled adventure was action packed making it feel like a week in the area. A week in D.C. only provides a small sample of the area.
After dropping our luggage at our fabulous 3 star airport convenient accommodations, we “road marched” to the Pentagon mall. On the quick journey, we stumbled across a September the eleventh monument next to a fire station that honored all fighter fighters. Specifically it honored the first responders from the DC area who volunteered to travel to New York City and help support in the aftermath of the 911 attack on our nation. The monument’s steel girders appeared to be original pieces from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. After a long day, spending some quality time at the mall and checking into our hotel, we prepared our uniforms for our first full day.
Day two included a tour of the capitol starting at Senator Sullivan’s Office. We were guided by an exceptionally personable intern who just finished a four year tour in the US Marine Corps. The intern took us to the nation’s capital via an underground train that connects the senate and the capitol. Who Knew!? We had to get special security badges to ride the 3 block train. The tour was everything to be expected and more. Once inside the capitol we started off with a surprisingly well done video titled e pluribus unum which means out of many one. The presentation honestly increased my already high resolve as a motivated citizen of our wonderful country. Every cadet, no every young person, should see this short film. The highlight of the trip was scheduled for the same day, a wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Already in army service uniform, we Uber’d to Arlington National Cemetery which was only a 20 minutes ride away. We were given a lovely packet of instructions that failed to include information about the welcome center being the sole entrance or the 25 minute walk to the tomb. We briskly performed the 25 minute walk in a little over 10 minutes amid the rain, on a humid day, in dress uniform! Thankfully, our intelligence officer recommended umbrellas that we luckily found and purchased at the pentagon mall the day prior. After the location, weather, and sweating in uniform high-drama, the event itself was absolutely spectacular! We were the second wreath laying for our 1215 time slot. The Thunderbirds followed a girl’s academy from Louisiana. It was very helpful to watch a run through of the ceremony prior to the cadets performing. The stakes were a little higher for the team because the cadets were representing our school, state of Alaska, and the country while in service uniform. The service uniform communicates their ability and appreciation for basic drill and ceremony to everyone watching. Cadets Gates, Moses, Stone, and Niedermeyer represented in excellent fashion. Once complete, the cadets offered a cadet battalion coin to the Sergeant of the Guard, SSG Uhler. The slightly intimidating and ‘strac’ NCO wearing aviator sunglasses accepted; however, it was on the condition they present it to him at the sentinel compound beneath the stadium. Their compound is where the “Old Guard” Soldiers chosen to guard the tomb ready themselves for duty, maintain their arms, and host private VIP history of the tomb briefings. The cadets happily accepted and proceeded to partake in what turned out to be the true highlight of the senior leader experience. To my surprise and complete honor, the Sergeant of the Guard called the compound to attention when I walked through the threshold, and from the cadets reaction, it visibly increased their excitement for this rare opportunity. Now in civilian clothes, Staff Sergeant Uhler proceeded to invite us to sit in leather chairs designed for distinguished visitors (DV). As DVs, we listen to an intriguing historic overview of the tomb from its inception to the present day. He allowed us to hold their weapons that are used on duty while explaining the vast amounts of symbolism in the detailed construction and use of the weapons. This event alone was worth the time and effort required for visit to Washington DC. We finished the day with a visit to the Capital Mall area, bought some small souvenirs, and visited the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History, to finish the day.
Starting at the Lincoln Monument early the next morning we conducted a physical training session that included a run to and from the Washington Monument. We ran up and down Lincoln’s stairs, performed some pushups, and posed for some “sick” pictures with the clouds and sun cooperating so well that they did not look real. Even the nay-sayers who were not enthusiastic about early morning PT were thankful they participated in the unique team building opportunity. Cadet Neidermeyer ran with me while carrying an open energy drink and didn’t even spill his drink 🙂 True!
After PT, on our last full day, we visited Mount Vernon, George Washinton’s private family residence. Unlike the day prior, this was a beautiful day; one can easily imagine what life was like at the turn of the 18th Century by how well preserved the enormous property is maintained. After touring his mansion, spending some time in the grass on the property’s steep hill overlooking the Potomac is an easy way to put yourself back in our first president’s time. After finishing the tour we headed back to the Capitol area to finish our day by visiting the Indigenous and Art Smithonians. We also took a few pictures and spoke with some interesting and harmless protestors.
We left the area the next day and had only minor challenges with flight changes. The cadets did not seem to mind and distracted themselves by basking in the recent memories of the experience.
The Washington DC Senior Leaders Experience is already on the docket for next school year and now that we have beta tested it, we will expand and optimize it just like all our Thunderbird enterprises. After a team reflection, we wish we would have extended one day and booked our events a little sooner which may have led to a visit to the White House. We are left more confident knowing we slayed this paper dragon five years in the making. The Senior Leader Experience was definitely valuable and exemplified our program’s motto, “Choose Greatness and Strive for Excellence!”
Please enjoy the wreath laying ceremony video and a moment at Arlington in the video clips below: