Petty Officer 3rd Class Austin Reed stands focused, his uniform spotless.
He is confident with his rifle. As lethal bayonets swing swiftly within inches of his body, he performs the drill movements, absent a single flinch or misstep, proud with the knowledge that he knows his skill inside and out. Spectators seem to be in awe of his flawless execution.
Suddenly, something feels off. Reed's concentration is broken for a fraction of a second. Time slows to a crawl as he tosses his rifle to another teammate. Reed hesitates, missing the rifle he was intended to catch, and there it is: his first mistake in front of what feels like the entire world. His stomach turns over; his heart beats hard enough to be perceived by the naked eye. He "tightens up" and continues on as he has rehearsed so many times before. His confidence shaken, he continues to make miniscule mistakes. His focus now clouded by doubt and embarrassment, he knows that as close as he came, today, he was just short of perfection.
For Reed, pointman of the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard Drill Team, perfection is not optional. It is obtained through countless hours of practice, unwavering dedication and extensive attention to detail.
"As the face of the Navy, we perform for high-ranking officials and foreign dignitaries," said Petty Officer 1st Class Urgessa Gemeda, drill team lead petty officer. "I am in charge of making sure the Sailors complete the rigorous training here as efficiently as possible, so that whenever the drill team goes out, they put on their best performance. Our best has to be perfection. Perfection is expected; excellence is tolerated."
The definition of perfection is being free from all flaws or defects. Reed's arduous journey toward that goal began before he stepped foot in the U.S. Navy's Ceremonial Center of Excellence.
"I arrived at the airport straight from basic training, still waiting to receive my luggage by the carousel, and two large (guardsmen) started yelling at me immediately in the airport, not caring that anyone else was around," Reed said. "They were yelling 'Tighten up!' and being fresh out of (basic training), I had no idea what that means. They taught me how to close my feet, not to look around, don't breath with your mouth open, don't do this, don't do that, and it's so challenging the first day because it's so much that they throw onto you in one moment."
New trainees are assigned to Company A, where they learn the basics of what is required to be a ceremonial guardsman and the various specialties available to them. Company B consists of the Casket Bearers, who render final honors at Arlington National Cemetery, along with the Firing Party. Company C consists of the Colors Platoon that performs at ceremonies throughout the National Capital Region, as well as the Drill Team, which is considered by many to be the most elite team, requiring the most precision.
Sailors in the ceremonial guard spend countless hours polishing their brass, pressing uniforms and forming their covers. They also drill and stand motionless for hours at a time without flinching.
"Back when I was in high school, I didn't pay as much attention to detail because I had no idea what it really was. I understood the concept of it, but I didn't know as much as I do now. I'm very picky about things now. My civilian clothes have to be hung up and ironed a certain way, whereas before I didn't really care."
This level of attention to detail is largely dependent on teamwork. The success or failure of ceremonial teams often depends on a strong sense of responsibility toward each other. Sometimes that means putting in work before and after the duty day.
"If something doesn't go right we could end up hurting each other and, as a team, we would look back at it and try to fix the problem," Reed said. "On a regular week, when we're not out doing performances, we'll run through line drills, making sure everyone is doing what they're supposed to do and paying attention to detail. A lot of people will stay after, when it gets dark, to work on what they need to."
Guardsmen's success toward reaching perfection is measured in their experience and accomplishment, but eventually they have to move on to the next chapter of their journeys.
"I will be leaving (the ceremonial guard) very soon and I'm excited, because I know if I can do the guard, I can do almost anything," Reed said. He is leaving to begin his duties as a gunner's mate for Littoral Combat Ship Squadron One in San Diego.
"I'm going to miss everything about it," he said about the ceremonial guard. "I'm going to miss the people I've met, my leadership, the things I've done here, and I hope that I made an impact before I left."
Though a Sailor's time at the ceremonial guard is temporary, the experience gained and the lessons learned often last a lifetime.
"I want to take my attention to detail with me (to my next unit)," Reed said, "and I hope that rubs off on the crew."