Three weeks after a group of pro-Trump protestors stormed the Capitol, there are thousands of National Guardsmen protecting a barricaded Capitol Hill. On Friday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited with some of those troops, bumping fists and asking how everything is going.
A contingent of 7,000 Guardsmen is expected to stay in and around the Capitol through February, with 5,000 scheduled to stay through mid-March. D.C. National Guard troops are expected to remain on orders until the end of March.
“I just wanted to come out here and talk to you and see how things were going,” Austin told a group of Task Force Capitol staff. “Let me say up front that I’m absolutely grateful for your service and your professionalism, your commitment. Your country’s grateful, and certainly our lawmakers here, who are doing the business of our government, are really, really grateful.”
Accompanied by Army Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, the task force’s commander, and Army Maj. Gen. William Walker, D.C.’s adjutant general, Austin walked a line of guardsmen posted along Constitution Avenue, including soldiers from Maine, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kansas, Georgia, California, Minnesota, Maryland and the District.
Some of the soldiers had been activated multiple times over the past year, including Michigan Guardsmen who were on protest duty in Kenosha after the shooting of Jacob Blake.
“I just want to say thanks for what you’re doing. Really appreciate you leaving home, and family, to come out here and help us defend the Capitol,” Austin told one soldier from Michigan. “Stay alert, take care of yourself. If you need something, don’t hesitate to let your chain of command know.”
Austin asked the soldiers about their lives back home, what they do for a living, whether they left behind spouses and children and how they spend their free time.
One was a car salesman with a fiancé, another a student studying criminal justice.
“I know it’s a little chilly out here,” Austin told a group of soldiers, standing watch with an 18-degree wind chill. “I know we’re going to do the right thing to take care of you, so make sure you talk to your chain of command if you need anything.”
Reports of poor conditions have circulated since 26,000 Guardsmen began streaming into Washington ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, including tales of 24-hour shifts, lack of hot meals and cramped conditions in hallways and a parking garage for breaks.
Controversy erupted Jan. 21 after one soldier tweeted out a picture of hundreds of troops having some down time in a Senate parking garage.
Officials have since clarified that Capitol authorities were not responsible for that decision, and that while soldiers have been catching some shut-eye on the floors of Capitol Hill buildings, they are all going back to hotel rooms when they’re off-duty.
In addition, nearly 200 troops have contracted the novel coronavirus, the head of the D.C. Guard told reporters on Monday.
Walker, the DCNG adjutant general, wasn’t able to say how many total are quarantined, but said that close contacts are tested after a soldier or airman comes up positive, with a 14-day isolation in Washington following diagnosis,
“I’m deeply troubled by the number,” Walker said at the time.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.