NEWS | March 14, 2024

JTF-NCR, MDW bid farewell to titans of the organization

By Master Sgt. William Reinier JTF-NCR/MDW

Marine Sgt. Steven Sexton was understandably excited. He was, after all, about to carry the official Battle Color of the Marine Corps in front of 61,000 fans, with another 123 million people watching on television, during Super Bowl LVIII.

“While I do think about it prior to the presentation, it doesn’t really hit me until I get on stage,” Sexton said. “That’s when I really come to terms with how important these events are and how many people are watching.”

In fact, if you’ve ever seen an armed forces color guard on television, a service member standing guard during a state funeral, The U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own” playing in the presidential inauguration, or military working dogs at an event around the Capitol, chances are it was coordinated by a team led by James Laufenburg or Michael Wagner.

At least, that was before Laufenburg retired as the director of the ceremonies and outreach division (COD), and Wagner stepped down as the director of national events on Friday, March 8, 2024.

“It’s an emotional time, but it was time,” said Laufenburg, who previously served as the commanding officer of the 3d Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard).

Together, they share nearly 85 years of combined service to our nation, both as members of the military then as government civilians. Last week, they turned the page on their careers at Joint Task Force – National Capital Region (JTF-NCR) and U.S. Army Military District of Washington (MDW), a dual-hatted command charged with, among other responsibilities, providing ceremonial support and defense support to civilian authorities.

“The jobs that you’ve done, nobody really knows about,” said Maj. Gen. Trevor Bredenkamp, JTF-NCR/MDW commanding general, during an award presentation in their honor. “You made an incredible impact on the people and on the mission.”

“We’re going to miss you both.”

Since taking over as COD director in 2018, Laufenburg supervised more than 6,000 missions around the world, ranging from presenting the colors at the Super Bowl to private memorials at Arlington National Cemetery. Referred to as the “Miracle District of Washington” by Army senior leaders, COD professionally executed events that were engaging, innovative, and above all, ceremonially appropriate for the occasion.

National special security events (NSSE) are those designated by the Department of Homeland Security requiring federal interagency support. JTF-NCR may support the lead federal agency during an NSSE with capabilities for additional security, explosive ordnance disposal, or rotary-wing support.

“Our job is to deter and, if necessary, defeat our foes,” Wagner said. “If we’ve done our job the very best we can, then we’d never fight anybody. [We have] to prepare in a way that makes the rest of the world say, ‘we’re not going to mess with them.’”

Wagner, who has been in his current role since 2013, isn’t going too far as he transitions to become executive director of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, where he is sure to work alongside the JTF as it prepares for the 2025 Presidential Inauguration.

Events like inaugurations are considered “no-fail” by the command. With so much at stake, cooperation and trust among organizations is an important component of both planning and execution.

“There are areas where if you put up a 4-by-4-foot platform to put a camera on to cover an event, each of the four corners is in a different [law enforcement] jurisdiction” Wagner explained. “So it’s a very complex environment.”

Wagner said discovering those relationships and how they work in a crisis can be very challenging.

“Those things don’t happen overnight,” he said. “Those things happen because of a deliberate effort of planning over time.”

As they leave the organization, both men not only leave their own legacy, but also outreach and partnership programs that are as strong as ever. Hannah Frenchick, MDW’s chief of community engagement, said working with Laufenburg’s team has brought her program to new heights.

“We’ve grown our community engagement program and created a new atmosphere for Twilight Tattoo through collaboration with COD,” she said. “All of these things help us reach thousands of people each year and make for a fun and meaningful work experience.”

That sense of purpose is something Sgt. Sexton believes is what makes these programs so successful to begin with.

“[We] represent the entire military, and the millions of Americans who are serving and have served,” he said. “I am only one person, representing a legacy which has stood strong for 248 years. Maintaining humility and respect for this legacy is key in being successful in this line of work.”

Knowing these efforts are in good hands reminds Wagner of the greatest lesson he’s learned during his tenure.

“It’s not just taking care of the people at the front of the parade,” he said. “2,000 people have to be in the fifth division of the parade and stand on the mall for eight hours…and potentially march in the dark at the end of the day.”

“You gotta take care of them, too.”

Author’s note: As Laufenburg and Wagner transition to their next chapters, we offer our most sincere thanks and gratitude for their service to JTF-NCR, MDW, and the United States of America.