D.C. National Guard Mission Well-Served, but Concerns Linger Over Troops’ Treatment

By Kalina Valqurey | January 25, 2021
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In the days leading up to the Jan. 20 Inauguration, 25,600 National Guard members were brought in to secure the District of Columbia after rioters took advantage of a large pro-Trump rally to breach the Capitol and cause mayhem during the Joint Session of Congress on Jan. 6.

Speaking to the Military Times, Guardsman Spc. Derek Yoder said that the National Guard’s presence in D.C. was “just so people could peacefully protest…our presence is just giving people a feeling of safety. You can see that with people, too.”

Other guardsmen expressed they shared Yoder’s sentiments.

Lt. Gen. Marc Sasseville, Vice Chief of the National Guard Bureau (NGB), told NPR that Guardsmen had a few different missions and were working with Metro PD, Capitol Police, Park Police, the FBI, and the Secret Service. According to NGB Chief Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, the majority of the National Guard members were armed. After facing no security incidents during the Inauguration or at any other time since Jan. 6, a portion of the Guard amassed in the nation’s capital are now being recalled by their governors. A core group will remain in the city.

Guardsmen background screening draws ire

During their stay, the treatment of the National Guard drew bi-partisan interest from lawmakers on several fronts. Guardsmen serving in D.C. during the inauguration underwent a vetting process that brought an outcry from some members of Congress and organizations supporting the Guardsmen.

Politico reported that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis told Fox News the vetting process was “trying to investigate the backgrounds of our guardsmen.” DeSantis called the screening process “totally inappropriate.” Texas Governor Gregg Abbot also spoke out, calling the move “the most offensive thing I’ve ever heard.”

Lt. Gen. Sasseville told NPR that the screening, which was being carried out in conjunction with the FBI, was more of a routine process and that: “We don’t have any signaling or indications that there is a problem, but we just want to be on the safe side.” 

One voice in favor of the vetting stood out and drew ire from Congressional colleagues. According to RealClear Politics, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said on CNN: “The Guard is 90 some-odd percent male; and only about 20 percent of white males voted for Biden, you’ve got to figure the guard is more conservative… there are probably not more than 25% of the people that are there protecting us that voted for Biden.” 

“The other 75% are in the class … who might want to do something,” said Cohen. 

Cohen said he found it “concerning” and invoked the horror of the Indira Gandhi assassination, in which she was killed by her own guards.

Members of the National Guard gather near the U.S. Capitol before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on January 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
Members of the National Guard gather near the U.S. Capitol before the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on January 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Image: by Stephanie Keith / Getty Images)

Cohen’s assertions shocked many, including some from his own party. Fellow Democrat and Navy veteran Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA) tweeted: “I could not disagree more with my colleague. I’m honored to have the men and women of the National Guard keeping our Capitol safe.”

Two Republican Representatives serving as current members of the National Guard stepped forward to speak against Cohen’s discredit toward the troops. “As a proud guardsman, this is bad,” tweeted Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL). “Let’s stop all the ‘high-scale-emotion-be-afraid’ politics.” 

Kinzinger was joined by Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MO), who told the Washington Examiner: “To make an assertion of this degree is despicable, and I implore the Congressman to retract his words and instead thank these men and women for fulfilling their sworn obligations.”

Bi-partisan concern surrounds troop accommodation

While the vetting issue drew a mixed response that was mostly in favor of the Guard, the issue of the Guards’ on-duty rest accommodations brought concerted bi-partisan support for the troops. This support notably occurred after the Guards had proved themselves with a job well done, protecting the inauguration.

Guards photographed sleeping on the marble floor of the Capitol when resting after their 12-hour shifts were concerning to some members of Congress, who expressed that they should be given cots. Cots arrived. However, this wasn’t the end of the worry over their accommodations, as the real stir about the Guards’ on-duty rest area rippled through Congressional tweets after Guards were relocated from the Capitol to a parking garage.

It was unclear who had given the order. According to Politico, the source of the order for the National Guard troops to vacate the Capitol was U.S. Capitol Police (USCP) officials. According to the Washington Examiner, the source of the order was an “unknown official.”

Another Guardsman confirmed that all National Guard were requested to not remain in the Capitol and nearby congressional buildings on Thursday; they were told to set up “mobile command centers” out of doors or in nearby hotels. For those on their 12-hour shifts, it was requested that rest breaks be taken outside and in parking garages.

While the garage that sheltered a significant portion of the troops was at least partially heated, according to a Guardsman, there was reportedly only one restroom with two stalls for 5,000 troops, one electrical outlet, no Internet, and limited cell phone reception. This was not the Guards’ sleeping quarters, but was rather their resting area during shifts that lasted up to 12 hours. Many of the exhausted guardsmen did end up sleeping on the floor of the garage.

Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) called the conditions “unconscionable and unsafe” in a tweet. There were security concerns related to moving traffic, as well as social distancing concerns. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a retired member of the National Guard, sent a series of tweets on Thursday indicating that she was actively engaged in finding help to resolve the issue and that she did not go to bed until the Guard was returned to the Capitol late that same night.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) tweeted: “This is outrageous, shameful, and incredibly disrespectful to the men and women keeping the U.S. Capitol safe and secure. We need it fixed and we need answers on how it happened.”

Congressmen and women on both sides of the aisle extended offers of Congressional office couches and snacks to Guardsmen. North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn brought pizza to the garage, tweeting “Our Troops deserve better“. The Washington Examiner noted that National Guardsmen are not active-duty fighters and are accustomed to living at home with their families.

First Lady Jill Biden greets members of the National Guard with chocolate chip cookies outside the Capitol on January 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C.
First Lady Jill Biden greets members of the National Guard with chocolate chip cookies outside the Capitol on January 22, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Image: by JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

Confusion around National Guard chain of command

National Guard Bureau Spokesman Maj. Matt Murphy indicated that the National Guard had not initiated the move, but he told CBS that this did not distract from the Guards’ abilities to perform their mission.

Acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman stated that USCP had not asked the Guards to vacate the Capitol except for “specific times on Inauguration Day itself while the swearing-in ceremonies were underway.” However, Maj. Murphy had informed CBS News: “As Congress is in session and increased foot traffic and business is being conducted, Capitol Police asked the troops to move their rest area. They were temporarily relocated to the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Center garage with heat and restroom facilities.” 

According to a transcript from the Senate floor on Friday, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) of the Armed Services Committee suggested that “confusion from this fog and friction environment” may have contributed to someone who “deviated from the chain of command.” 

“I called the Acting Chief of Capitol Police. I called General McConville, Chief of Staff of the Army. My staff went and talked to guys on the line. Acting Chief Pittman says the Guard was never asked to leave yesterday. Multiple members of military leadership told me they were told yesterday by a member of uniformed Capitol Police that the Guard had to be out of the Capitol Visitor’s Center. I know one thing…the troops didn’t move on their own. We are in the process of identifying who gave the order to the Guard,” said Sen. Inhofe.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu cited the situation as related to a “broken system” and indicated the Guards’ treatment was the reason for his being among one of the first governors to recall his state’s troops from D.C. Sununu stated that the Guardsmen “don’t complain but it’s my job to really protect the team and make sure they are not put into those substandard conditions, so we pulled them out.”

Gov. DeSantis, another of the first four governors to recall Guardsmen, indicated there had been issues with the inadequate conditions as well as questions regarding the mission fundamentally, and he wanted the guards in a better situation. 

To date, a total of eight governors have acted to pull their Guardsmen from the nation’s capital: DeSantis and Sununu were joined by the governors of Texas, Montana, Alaska, Massachusetts, Arizona, and Tennessee.

According to The Intelligencer, a phone call was initiated by President Joe Biden on Friday in which he apologized to the National Guard Bureau. First Lady Jill Biden made an unannounced stop to deliver cookies to the Guardsmen and to tell them “thank you to all of you for keeping me and my family safe.”

According to the National Guard Bureau, 7,000 troops could still remain in D.C. through March 12.

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