Just days after Army officials said they came “right up to the edge” of requesting backup from active-duty troops to control protests in Washington, D.C., large contingents of National Guard troops are withdrawing from the district, their support deemed no longer needed.
Last week, Guard members from 11 states rushed to the district to support D.C. National Guard and law enforcement after May 31 protests around the White House turned violent. Angry crowds around the country took to the streets following the death of George Floyd, a unarmed black man who died after being taken into custody by Minneapolis police.
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Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy made the announcement that thousands of Guard troops would pull out of D.C. after Saturday’s peaceful demonstrations, which involved close to 45,000 people.
“Over the course of these last 48 hours, the National Guard as well as our interagency partners … looked at the trend, saw that it had become very peaceful in nature and started developing a plan for the withdrawal of, first, out-of-state National Guardsmen supporting the D.C. Guard, and then how do we get on the glidepath to ultimately turn off the entire D.C. National Guard,” McCarthy told defense reporters in a phone conference.
The announcement came hours after President Trump tweeted Sunday that he had ordered the troops home.
“I have just given an order for our National Guard to start the process of withdrawing from Washington, D.C., now that everything is under perfect control,” Trump said. “They will be going home, but can quickly return, if needed. Far fewer protesters showed up last night than anticipated!”
Guard members from Mississippi, Florida, Utah and Indiana will be the first to return to their home states, departing around 5 p.m. Sunday, McCarthy said.
The plan is to have “all of these units to full departure no later than tomorrow at 5 p.m.,” McCarthy said.
Beginning May 8, Guard members from Missouri, South Carolina, Ohio, Idaho and Tennessee will return home as well, McCarthy said, adding that he hopes to have all out-of-state elements home within 72 hours.
Guard troops from Maryland and New Jersey began departing yesterday, McCarthy said. The D.C. National Guard will continue to support federal and metro police through Sunday.
In total, about 5,240 Guard members had converged on D.C., with about 1,500 Guardsmen serving on any given day to man roadblocks, prevent crowds from trespassing White House grounds and protect key monuments in the city, said Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of the D.C. National Guard.
The buildup of forces came after protests on the evening of May 31 quickly got out of control, with violent protesters looting, damaging monuments and storming barricades.
“On Sunday evening, security elements were almost overwhelmed and you had buildings damaged and defaced [and] lit on fire, and people trying to get to the [White House] fence,” McCarthy said.
Five soldiers received head injuries after being hit in the head with bricks thrown by demonstrators, McCarthy said. The assaults resulted in one soldier suffering from a severe concussion, he added.
D.C. Guard members were stationed behind the U.S. Park Police and Secret Service, Walker said.
“We are not a law enforcement agency; we protect, and we defend,” Walker said. “On that night, my soldiers and airmen were defending the nation. We were defending the capital, and we were the last line of defense. … And on a couple of occasions, they penetrated the line and our Guardsmen … held the line and kept people from advancing onto the White House proper.”
On Monday, the Pentagon ordered about 1,600 active-duty soldiers from units including the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment from Fort Bragg, North Carolina and the 91st Military Police Battalion out of Fort Drum, New York to deploy to the region in case they were needed to move into the city.
“We didn’t know if we could put a lot of the support into the city quickly by marshaling National Guardsmen from surrounding areas,” McCarthy said.
In addition, 800 soldiers from the D.C-based 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as The Old Guard, were also put on standby status.
All active units have returned to their home station as the protests continue to be non-violent, McCarthy said.
“We came right up to the edge to bring active troops here, and we didn’t,” McCarthy said. “They were on the [city’s] outskirts because we didn’t want to do it; the Department of Defense didn’t want to do it, because we knew once you went to that escalation, it gets very, very difficult.”
Instead, after a lot of phone calls to other states, McCarthy said, “Guardsmen jumped in their vehicles and rushed to the capital to support us, and we are very grateful for that.”
Military leaders admit that some things didn’t go as well as planned.
The Pentagon and the National Guard are investigating an incident on Monday evening that involved reports of Army helicopters flying dangerously low over demonstrators.
McCarthy said he authorized the Guard to use helicopters to “observe and report” on demonstrations in the city but would not comment further while the incident is under investigation.
“There is a 15-6 [fact-finding] inquiry underway, and we will know more early this week,” McCarthy said.
Walker added that “there was no order” given for helicopters to fly low “to disperse the crowd.”
McCarthy said the military’s response will be discussed further when he and other Army leaders testify before the House Armed Services Committee this week.
“It’s clear that we have to work very hard to communicate with the American people,” McCarthy said.
“Throughout Monday and Tuesday, there were a lot of text messages and phone calls about how ‘I see the 82nd Airborne down here.’ Well, we have combat patches on our right shoulders, and we have a lot of Guardsmen who have served on active duty and transitioned, so it can create confusion in the fog of these types of events. I just ask for patience and allow us the opportunity to explain what transpired.”
— Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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