Though membership in the U.S. military is not without sacrifice and hardship, two local service members — William Sunderland and Winston McEwen — found themselves on one of the largest stages in the world during last month’s inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.
William Sunderland, a member of the Scotland High School class of 2005 and son of Russell and Renee Sunderland of Laurinburg, is one of 73 members of the Coast Guard Ceremonial Honor Guard, based in Washington, D.C. He joined the Coast Guard after graduating from N.C. A&T University.
“After college I needed a job with benefits and ended up finding the Coast Guard,” Sunderland said. “I ended up in basic within a month. I got my first choice, which was the Honor Guard in D.C., so I was very lucky.”
As a member of the Honor Guard, Sunderland has provided military honors for dignitaries at the NATO summit in Chicago last year and has been part of ceremonial detail during state visits by world leaders, including UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
“Certain jobs call for us to be up at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or at the Pentagon for dignitaries and leaders,” he said. “I’ve done jobs at the White House. We have a job just about every other day. Normally if there’s not a job it’s the typical 7-3 drilling.”
On Inauguration Day, Sunderland served as a presidential usher, escorting and directing invited guests to their seats, working from 5 a.m. until after the president left the platform. He called the opportunity a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Representing the U.S. military during so momentous an event magnified Sunderland’s sense of his purpose as an Honor Guard member.
“I feel a lot of gratitude knowing I’m able to represent my country, my service, everybody who has come before me, and everybody who is in the military now in front of world leaders and the President of the United States,” said Sunderland. “One of the other big rewards is rendering military honors to fallen Coast Guard members and when they pass away we do military funerals. We’re some of the last people the family sees in terms of military servicemen and we’re able to show respect and honor to that person for what they’ve done.”
Winston McEwen, a Laurinburg native and 2011 graduate of Scotland Christian Academy, is a member of the U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment stationed at Ft. Bragg. He is the son of Kristi Rogers of Laurinburg and the late Zane McEwen. McEwen graduated from basic training on June 6, 2012, and currently holds the rank of PV2 and serves as a cannon crewman.
In September of last year, orders came for the 82nd Airborne 3rd Brigade Combat Team to send a regiment to participate in the inauguration parade. The 319th was ultimately selected for what McEwen called “an honor.”
Though not unused to ceremonial exercises, marching in the presidential inauguration parade was a new scale of experience.
“We’ve had ceremony changes – if one of our chain of command is leaving and someone’s replacing him we have to be ready in order to march or do ceremonies at any time,” said McEwen.
Though many members of the 319th had been in the Washington area for several weeks, McEwen and the other 87 marching members left Ft. Bragg on Jan. 19, leaving enough time for marching practice and a visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Inauguration Day dawned bright and early for McEwen and his compatriots.
“That day we woke up around 4 a.m., we loaded up the buses around 5, and headed to D.C.,” he said. “They had this right in between the Washington Monument and the Capitol building. After the president did his speech and drove down to his overlook, that’s when we started marching.”
Servicemen participating in the inauguration do so on orders, regardless of their own political leanings, but McEwen said the experience was unforgettable all the same.
“We do what we’re told and we know we can’t say anything or put our own judgement in it,” McEwen said. “We do what we have to, but it was definitely an honor.”
In March, the 319th will leave Ft. Bragg for training for deployment to an as of yet undisclosed location in September. This will be McEwen’s first deployment.