Military's inauguration planner wants a perfect day

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 8, 2009 

US NEWS CAPTAIN 1 MCT

Capt. Jason Ruffin is the chief of plans for the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, one of several groups that are involved in the inauguration.

CHUCK KENNEDY — Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — Army Capt. Jason Ruffin has a problem:

Where do you put 13,000 marchers — and counting — if for some reason the route for the inaugural parade suddenly has to change midway through? All those high school marching bands from all over the country, the service academy band, the military color guards, the horseback unit of the Border Patrol.

In a city that will be wrapped in a security blanket and overrun with millions of visitors, the complexity of such a move is daunting.

"It doesn't take a degree from MIT to figure out it's going to be chaotic, even if things go perfect," said Ruffin, a 33-year-old reservist from Platte City, Mo.

Planning an emergency alternative to the parade route is only one of many courses on Ruffin's plate.

He's the chief of plans for the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, one of several groups that are involved in the Jan. 20 inauguration of Barack Obama as president. Ruffin left his wife and two daughters, ages 1 and 4, back in Missouri for the six-month assignment.

It's his job to help make sure that all the ceremonial activities during the inauguration that involve the military, except for the presidential swearing-in — that's someone else's headache — unfold with clockwork precision.

The parade, the balls, the prayer services — if there are to be uniforms present, it's his baby.

"If you were stand back and take it all in, yeah, it could be enough to probably drive you to drinking," Ruffin joked. "We have plans in place for everything, and we have backup plans and we have backup plans for our backup plans."

Planning for the historic event involves an alphabet soup of responsibility. There's the PIC (Presidential Inaugural Committee), the JCCIC (Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies), the military's AFIC and an array of other governmental and law enforcement groups.

"You've got all these different jurisdictions that have to come together and mesh their plans on how to execute this operation so that it's successful and that it looks seamless to the public," Ruffin said.

That's no easy task in a capital where the multiple levels of jurisdiction make a Mayan pyramid look like a one-story bungalow.

Recently, planners walked through the paces, using a 40-foot-by-40-foot map of the parade route stretched across the floor of the D.C. Armory.

On Inauguration Day, 1,500 men and women from all five branches of the armed services will line the 1.5-mile route. They probably are facing a very long — and possibly very cold and miserable — day.

"How are we feeding those people?" Ruffin said. "How are we keeping them warm?"

How did the mantle of planning for these kinds of issues on one of the most important days in American history fall to him?

"It takes a person who's not really a numbers-gathering type, but who can juggle 10 balls at once, keep all the projects on tap and going well," said Lt. Col. Aaron Dean of the Army Reserve, one of Ruffin's superiors and a veteran of five inaugurations. "He came in and took the bull by the horns."

Ruffin grew up near Tulsa, Okla. He attended college on a track scholarship, but midway through school he was bored and wanted adventure. So, at 20, he enlisted. He soon was back in the classroom, however, this time at Kansas State University, where he met his wife, under a special Army program to train enlistees to become officers.

Ruffin majored in criminology and received a master's degree in human resources.

He served with a military police brigade in the Middle East in the run-up to the Iraq war. As the anti-terrorism officer, Ruffin wrote the plan to protect the top brass headquartered in Qatar.

At Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, he held several MP command positions. Last December, he left active duty after 13 years for the Reserves and civilian life. But the Army soon called, asking whether he'd like to be part of the inauguration. The job was slated for someone with more bars than captain.

"I submitted the application, not really thinking I was going to get selected," he said. "When the e-mail came from the Pentagon, I was ecstatic. It was going to be an historic event. This is something I can tell my daughters about someday."

Ruffin's wife, Alissa, a teacher who grew up in Overland Park, Kan., said the magnitude of her husband's job "makes my mind absolutely swirl. But that is his gift. He thinks worst-case scenario in everything, and he has five fallback plans. That's what he does with our household."

Ruffin, however, can't relax until Jan. 21, the day after all the hubbub. He has to complete a playbook on how it all worked for the person who'll wear his hat four years from now.

One thing is always on his mind.

"We are representing the armed forces to our new commander in chief," Ruffin said. "We are going to be his first impressions. Our mission is to make sure that this event goes off without a hitch . . . and as perfectly as possible."

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