As most of the 25,000 National Guardsmen who were called upon to protect Washington, D.C., during the presidential inauguration began heading home this week, one Black service member agreed to speak to Yahoo News about the experience of protecting the nation’s capital in the wake of a pro-Trump riot on Capitol Hill.
Like many Americans, the guardsman, a friend of this reporter who agreed to speak to Yahoo News on the condition of anonymity, watched the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol with a sense of shock. The scenes of angry white rioters erecting a gallows and others carrying Confederate flags were seared into his memory. Two days later, he was called for duty and headed to Washington.
“I asked [the commanding officers], ‘Are we going to be there for three weeks? Or are we going to be there for three months?’” the guardsman remembers saying. “He said, ‘We don’t have any information on that. It could be three months. It could be two weeks. It is what it is. You're going to be deployed.’ … So I immediately had to get all my weaponry and my gear on Friday, the eighth. I had to get everything possible to get ready because we didn't know how long it was going to be down there.”
By Jan. 10, following riot training in D.C., the guardsman was deployed at the Capitol, where he worked 18-hour daily shifts. Initially, it was two hours on, two hours off, he said, but eventually he found himself patrolling in and around the Capitol building and being vigilant at stationary areas at seven-hour intervals. Images of guardsmen sleeping on the floor of the Capitol that went viral illustrated the exhausting nature of the work, he said, but it was also exhilarating because it involved protecting America’s democratic institutions.
As a Black service member, the guardsman acknowledge that he felt “emotional whiplash” when he recalled the painful history of Black Americans who were being asked to commit sacrifices for the country because of something others had started.
“I felt like I got a lot of support from friends and mentors for protecting democracy,” the guardsman said. “As people of color, we’ve had a long history of servicing the country and protecting this country. I just felt this huge sense of pride like this was a part of history and I was here as a person of color. ... I think it’s one of those moments when I look back and the type of service I contributed to my country, I can definitely point at this moment.”
Aside from an isolated incident in which a man was stopped by Capitol Police at a checkpoint with an unregistered handgun and several rounds of ammunition, the week leading up to the inauguration went by smoothly. Though the FBI and the Department of Justice had warned that armed protests might take place in Washington, they did not materialize.
Fears of more violence even led the Pentagon to conduct vetting of the guard troops deployed in the nation’s capital. But the guardsman says he and his fellow troops put politics aside during their mission and focused on supporting one another.
“I really felt that I was there to protect democracy,” the guardsman said. “It wasn’t about politics. It wasn’t about Democrats versus Republicans. It wasn’t about that. It was us versus the Trump supporters trying to threaten democracy. So everybody aligned [on] that, even Republicans and Democrats alike. That’s what we all were able to agree on.”
As of Monday afternoon, there were still 13,000 guards National Guard troops in D.C., but that number will drop to 7,000 by the end of this week, Gen. Daniel Hokanson said at a briefing at the Pentagon. The remaining soldiers will assist specific agencies with security for two weeks, Hokanson said, adding that the logistical effort in the capital had been unprecedented.
“It speaks volumes about the support we received from our governors and adjutants general,” Hokanson said. “It also speaks to the investment America has made in the National Guard's ability to respond whenever and wherever we are needed.”
Ultimately, the guardsman told Yahoo News that he did what he set out to do, protecting the Capitol and helping insure that Biden’s inauguration passed without incident.
“We were willing to do whatever it took to protect,” the guardsman said. “That’s the mentality you have to have. And I don’t want this to be a misconception. We weren’t there to be violent. We were there for the peaceful transition to the Joe Biden administration.”
Cover thumbnail photo: Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images
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