Big guns busted out for Capitol event
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Seconds after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin pledged to faithfully discharge his duties as governor, members of the West Virginia National Guards' 201st Field Artillery Regiment started discharging rounds from some very big guns.
The Fairmont-based group, the only field artillery unit in the state, fired off 17 blank rounds from their "pack Howitzers" on Monday afternoon. Smoke from the three guns wafted over the Capitol lawn and onto Kanawha Boulevard, which had been shut down early Monday in preparation for the inauguration.
The shots came in quick succession, with about four seconds between each round. A loud echo came a split-second after each blast, the sound traveling across the Kanawha River and through Kanawha City before bouncing off the mountainside behind it.
The salute is an important, if noisy, part of each governor's inaugural ceremony. Members of the 201st arrived in Charleston on Sunday to make sure everything went according to plan.
Sgt. Scott Derring, 28, of Elkins, said the troops practiced with the cannons for a few hours, firing a few rounds and loading and unloading the guns. He said the ceremony eventually becomes second nature.
It takes 11 guardsmen to complete the salute, three on each gun, plus a sergeant to call "fire" and a lieutenant to oversee the operation. Each team has about eight seconds to reload before firing again.
Derring said the "No. 1 man" on each team loads the round and, after the shot is fired, throws the spent shell away from the gun. The second member of the team doesn't have a title, but his sole job is to pull the lanyard attached to the cannon's trigger, firing the shot.
The third member of the team is the "crew chief" and is there to ensure the safety of the other team members. That's what Derring does. He opens the gun between each round, making sure the shell fired and was ejected. If the gun misfires, he hollers at his teammates to let them know.
"It's all muscle memory. Once you get in the flow, you won't even know it happened," he said. "We'll fire, count to four, the next one will fire, wait four seconds and the next one will fire."
Derring said the 75 mm guns are mostly used for ceremonial purposes and look like toy pistols compared to the 155 mm cannons and the 105-pound shells the guardsmen usually fire.
Not that today's wars have much use for those big guns. The heavy artillery was best used when warfare involved an opposing army and a front line.
Derring has been deployed twice in his 12 years in the Guard, once to Iraq in 2004 and again to Kuwait in 2010. The first time, his unit provided security for convoys. The second time, members were tasked with providing emergency security services, like military police without the authority to arrest people.
But Derring said that's what he likes about the National Guard: The job is always changing.
"Being in the Guard, they teach you all kinds of stuff," he said.
Next week, his unit will head to some location near Washington, D.C. to prepare for President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony. The unit has trained for the last year to prepare for the job, learning how to deal with chemical, biological and nuclear attacks.
"If something would happen, we'd get called out," Derring said.
After the last shot was fired Monday, members of the 201st wheeled their cannons to California Avenue, where their trucks and Humvees were waiting.
It was a chilly 40 degrees at Monday's inauguration, and breezes from the Kanawha River made it feel much colder.
Elected officials, their families and members of the public came bundled against the weather. U.S. District Judge Joseph R. "Joe Bob'' Goodwin donned a fedora, while Justice Robin Davis sported a large pink-and-black hat.
First Lady Joanne Tomblin appeared to wear a fur coat, though spokeswoman Amy Shuler-Goodwin assured the Daily Mail no animals were harmed in the production of the garment.
Many in the crowd huddled beneath special commemorative blankets donated by Charleston Area Medical Center.
The blue fleece blankets featured white embroidery reading "Inauguration of Earl Ray Tomblin the 35th Governor of West Virginia," along with the date and a CAMC logo.
Hospital spokesman Dale Witte said CAMC donated 300 of the blankets for the event and has provided blankets for the last three inaugurations.