The three National Guard soldiers milled about behind the 7-foot black fence surrounding the U.S. Capitol, part of a massive buildup of troops in Washington ahead of the scheduled Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.
Neck gaiters up to their eyes to protect against both a deadly virus and bitter cold — and cradling M-4 rifles — the soldiers were among some 15,000 troops in the city as of Sunday afternoon, with another 10,000 authorized if needed.
It is known collectively as Joint Task Force District of Columbia, Air Force Capt. Melissa L. Heintz, a spokeswoman for the 113th Wing, told Military Times.
Meanwhile, another 4,000 Guard members from 19 states have been activated to protect “key infrastructure and capitol buildings in their states,” Wayne Hall, a National Guard Bureau spokesman, told Military Times.
But with so many troops in a city that has become a maze of black fencing, cement barriers and dozens of checkpoints, there is an eerie calm in Washington ahead of a feared storm of supporters of President Donald Trump, who don’t believe their candidate lost and are willing to continue the violence.
“So far, so quiet,” said one of the soldiers, who, like all the troops approached by Military Times on Sunday was reluctant to talk and would not offer up his name or which state he was from.
The three nodded in unison when asked how the locals were treating them.
“Very good,” they said.
As for standing outside the Capitol, the soldiers were stoic.
“This is our duty,” said one.
“That’s why we are here,” said another.
Threats external and internal
Sunday night, the Associated Press reported that U.S. defense officials say they are worried about an insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, prompting the FBI to vet all of the 25,000 National Guard troops coming into Washington for the event.
And while the military routinely reviews service members for extremist connections, the FBI screening is in addition to any previous monitoring.
National Guard troops are filling the capital, as well as many around the nation, because of threats by right wing extremist groups still loyal to Trump in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol siege and ahead of the planned Biden inauguration.
With one Virginia National Guard soldier and many veterans among the scores arrested in the wake of the Capitol siege that saw five people die — including Brian Sicknick, an Air Force veteran and Capitol police officer killed after a rioter hit him in the head with a fire extinguisher — the military was taking no chances with who was coming to protect the inauguration.
“All incoming National Guard members supporting the DCNG, local and federal authorities go through a credentialing process,” said Air Force Maj. Matt Murphy, a National Guard Bureau spokesman.
Murphy would not elaborate on what kind of screening, but said the information is shared with the requesting federal agencies and added to their database.
“We cannot speak for those agencies and how they use the information,” he said.
On Saturday, Defense One reported that all Guard troops coming to D.C. go through a screening that is “about the same” as the standard background check that Guardsmen go through when they initially enlist, the commanding general of the D.C. National Guard told Defense One in an interview on Saturday. It is intended as “another layer” of security on top of continuous monitoring of the force, he said.
“For this deployment everybody is screened additionally, but it’s more of a reassurance, because we do everything we can do know our Guardsmen, our soldiers and airmen,” Maj. Gen. William Walker said.
Repeating what Guard officials told Military Times last week, Murphy said that the NGB is working with the Secret Service to determine which service members supporting the national special security event for the Inauguration require additional background screening.
“Per Department of Defense policy, all service members are trained annually on the Threat Awareness and Reporting Program (TARP) which requires department personnel to report any information regarding known or suspected extremist behavior that could be a threat to the department or the United States,” said Murphy. “The D.C. National Guard is also providing additional training to service members as they arrive in D.C. that if they see or hear something that is not appropriate, they should report it to their chain of command. There is no place for extremism in the military and we will investigate each report individually and take appropriate action.”
The Army, said Murphy, “is committed to working closely with the F.B.I. as they identify people who participated in the violent attack on the Capitol to determine if the individuals have any connection to the Army. Any type of activity that involves violence, civil disobedience, or a breach of peace may be punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice or under state or federal law.
Last week, Jacob Fracker, 29, and Thomas “T.J.” Robertson, 47, were arrested and charged in federal court Wednesday on one count of knowingly entering a restricted building without lawful authority and one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, according to a federal criminal complaint.
Fracker is a corporal and an infantryman with the Virginia Army National Guard, while Robertson previously served as a military policeman in the Army Reserve. Fracker is the first active service member known to be charged in connection to the Capitol riot.
Both men were photographed inside the Capitol building. In a photo included in the complaint, Fracker appears to be giving his middle finger to the camera in front of a statue of John Stark, an American Revolution veteran who led troops at the Battle of Bennington in New York.
Temporary new normal
On a normal day, it takes about an hour to walk the 2.5 miles down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill.
But these are no normal days.
There are scores of checkpoints and road closures around downtown. Many are blocked by now-ubiquitous black fencing, others are guarded by law enforcement, Secret Service or, in some cases, Guard troops. Some require passes, others are a heated tent where individuals go through a magnetometer after having bags searched.
Around 5:30 p.m. Sunday, a line of troops, behind the metal fence along Louisiana Avenue and lugging weapons, equipment and rucksacks, filed toward the Capitol. An hour later, about three dozen troops, unarmed and wearing a variety of covers and face coverings, hustled down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol as well.
By 7:30, National Guard troops had made their presence known as far west as the intersection of 23rd and I streets northwest, where about a half dozen set up a roadblock near George Washington University, using a Humvee and a truck to close off traffic.
Friday afternoon, the National Guard Bureau announced an increase of an additional 4,000 troops authorized to support the inauguration National Special Security Event federal law enforcement mission and security preparations, bringing the new total to 25,000 troops the Defense Department has agreed to provide. The Department of the Army and the National Guard Bureau are working on a sourcing solution now to support this request, according to an NGB media release.
On Thursday, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy authorized up to 21,000 National Guard troops from around the country to assist law enforcement with security surrounding the inauguration, according to the NGB.
“Right now, we have approximately 7,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen on the ground in support of the lead federal agency,” Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau said during an inauguration security briefing with Vice President Mike Pence Thursday, according to a media release. “They are under the command and control of Maj. Gen. William Walker, the Commanding General of the D.C. National Guard, and are providing security, communications, logistics and coordination with all supported agencies.
“As always, our first priority is to protect people and property — and the safety and wellbeing of our National Guard personnel and their families,” Hokanson said. “I visit with these men and women every night and they understand the importance of this mission. They are also proven, prepared and proud to do their part to ensure a peaceful and safe inauguration of our incoming commander-in-chief.”
National Guard civil support missions are generally conducted to assist:
• Supporting civil authorities whose capabilities or capability is insufficient to meet current requirements.
• Protecting the life, property and safety of U.S. citizens.
• Protecting critical U.S. infrastructure.
• Providing humanitarian assistance during disaster response and domestic emergencies.
• Providing support to designated law enforcement activities and operations.
• Providing support to designated events, and other activities.
“As you may be aware, the forefathers of today’s National Guard were present for the inauguration of George Washington, and have been part of every inauguration since,” Hokanson said. “I would like to thank our National Guard service members, and their families and employers who make their service possible. While the last 12 months have been unprecedented, we continue to respond to every mission, both here and at home — and overseas — living true to our motto: ‘Always Ready, Always There!’”
The length of the missions may vary, but Defense Department officials were authorized to deploy the Guard for up to 30 days for the inauguration and surrounding protests.
Pentagon officials approved requests to have some Guard members armed with either long guns or handguns, particularly those Guard members assigned near the U.S. Capitol.
The announcements came a week after a mob of supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol to try to overturn the results of the presidential election. The House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump an unprecedented second time on Wednesday, making him the first president to be impeached twice.
On Jan. 12, National Guardsmen were given authorization to be armed in support of the U.S. Capitol Police to protect the Capitol and individual members of Congress and their staff, according to a National Guard Bureau media release. This was requested by federal authorities and authorized by the secretary of the Army.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.