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SALTWATER PORTRAIT

Ron Chaney has been eyewitness to history

Washington, D.C. job includes planning military ceremonies for dignitaries
February 19, 2019

From the Middle East deserts to the Oval Office in Washington, D.C., retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ron Chaney has been a witness to history.

Chaney, who grew up in Bridgeville, entered the Army after college with a plan to serve three years. That military and public service ended up spanning several decades. “I liked the people, the sense of purpose and what I did,” he said.

For the past three years, Chaney served as chief of ceremonies for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, coordinating all ceremonies with a military component involving the president, vice president, secretaries of state and defense, and the chairman of the joint chiefs. He held the position the final year of former President Barack Obama's administration and the first two years of President Donald Trump’s term.

Nearly every government event in Washington has some sort of military component, and there are thousands of them every year.

He's been in charge of recent historical events including Trump's inauguration, the funeral service for former President George H.W. Bush and the 2018 state visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, the only one so far of Trump's presidency.

His office handles every detail but security. “Everything we do is planned to the most minute detail,” he said. That even includes the length of the red carpet depending on the dignitary being honored.

“The ceremonies are exhibitions of our military power,” Chaney said, adding service members in the ceremonies are handpicked. “We don't do mistakes. There are no do-overs.”

The job also entails hundreds of welcoming ceremonies for heads of state and other dignitaries from around the world and coordinating wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

That task is a homecoming of sorts for Chaney. His first assignment in the Army in 1981 was the prestigious commander of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, part of the Army’s 3rd Infantry, the Old Guard, which guards the tomb 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Chaney said he was selected for the Old Guard from a group of 74 other officers.

Among his many awards and ribbons, Chaney received the Tomb Identification Badge for his service; only the fourth time the award had been presented to a commissioned officer. In addition, he was presented with the Meritorious Service Civilian Award during a retirement ceremony in his honor in early February.

Chaney said his office coordinates more than 5,000 ceremonies per year – most are burials at Arlington National Cemetery, about 150 a week. He said those ceremonies – large and small -– are a priority and are held in high esteem.

His office also helps coordinate the schedules of the premier military bands and musical units, such as the Fife and Drum Corps that marched in the most recent Return Day Parade in Georgetown.

While he attended ceremonies, he was in the background serving as director to make sure every ceremony went off without a hitch. Meetings with all agencies involved beforehand set the stage for each ceremony, with Chaney once again leading the effort.

Chaney always had direct communication with other federal agencies involved in ceremonies, but the Secret Service called the shots on security. “They create the bubble we operate in,” he said.

In his three years, he met about 400 heads of state and had to give directions to each one on what their role was in the ceremony.

Chaney said his job was to follow protocol as much as possible. “I tried to present the idea that preparations are non-negotiable for certain ceremonies. But it's not like I can tell the president what to do and not do,” he said. “You can only push back so far.”

During ceremonies some laws pertain – including how the U.S. flag is displayed – but most ceremonies follow customs, courtesies and traditions that can change, he said. “We hope there can be evolution and not a revolution, though,” he said.

Chaney said one of the most memorable ceremonies occurs in early May each year when Medal of Honor recipients are honored at the Tomb of the Unknown.
Army recipients are treated with special care by Chaney's office. A member of his staff stays with the families from the time they leave their homes to the time they return during the week that the president presents the medal.

“I've been with presidents and other heads of state, but that's nowhere near as awe-inspiring as being in a room with 50 Medal of Honor recipients,” he said.

A stellar military career

Chaney, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, had a stellar military and government civilian career serving as an infantry officer, a commander in combat, the director of operations for U.S. forces in Haiti as part of Uphold Democracy, and working at the Pentagon as the officer with oversight of the Army's discretionary budget.

Besides Haiti, he served overseas in Germany, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and took part in Operation Vigilant Warrior. He was teaching ROTC at the University of Delaware during Desert Storm, and the Army would not release him for combat duty.

In 1999, he took a job with L-3 Technologies, a government contractor, retiring after 15 years as vice president. Chaney said as he looked at the last phase of his working career, he wanted to return to serve again and give back.

“The job I ended up with in Washington the past three years never crossed my mind,” he said. “It may have always been one of my dream jobs, but since 1960, there have only been four people in the position, so having the opportunity to do this was unanticipated.”

Chaney is a graduate of Woodbridge High School and the University of Delaware. He attended law school, but left to join the Army. Ron and his wife of 42 years, Betsy, who also grew up in Bridgeville, are settling into semi-retirement in their new home near Rehoboth Beach as they return to their Sussex County roots. It's their 24th move, Betsy said. Chaney said he and his wife plan to live life to the fullest enjoying what the beach area has to offer.

“But I'm not done yet. I want to get engaged. We are both looking for ways to get involved,” he said.

The couple has a daughter, Brooke, who is married to a Navy pilot, and they have two children.