Tired and awestruck: the troops defending US democracy

The images of thousands of armed troops guarding the seat of US democracy ahead of next week’s presidential inauguration have shocked Washington and the world.

For the citizen-soldiers and airmen of the National Guard, who dropped their day jobs to answer for duty, the experience of being called on in the wake of the deadly attack on the US Capitol by pro-Trump mobs has been surreal. It has meant them dozing on the marbled floors of the Capitol during rest stops, with their weapons propped against the wall.

Specialist Christopher Kelly, a Virginia National Guard soldier, told the Financial Times that he was awestruck by its beautiful interior and “a little bit” tired. 

The 27-year-old paralegal is more used to occasionally helping manage hurricane responses rather than staving off another violent insurrection in the capital, but said that morale was high and troops were prepared.

“We’ve had our training to handle riot control and security so if we need to . . . so be it,” said Mr Kelly, who was armed, like others, with an assault rifle.

Security in Washington, which has been dramatically increased since the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol with relative ease, is still being tightened. More fencing is going up this weekend while a zigzag of sand-coloured vehicles, painted to blend in with the background in the Middle East, have blocked off the roads leading to congress.

The army has authorised 21,000 troops to protect the inauguration of Joe Biden, easily outstripping the total number of US troops deployed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia combined.

Specialist Nicholas Braden, a 33-year-old police officer and member of the Virginia National Guard, had never even visited Washington DC before. He now plans on telling his future grandchildren about his role in the mission. It has been “awesome” to be a part of history, he said, although he admitted to some nerves and said it was “sad” that it had come to this.

“I think this is one of the safest places in the nation now,” he added.

Outside of the heavily guarded complex, Washington’s residents described their disbelief. For them, it is a lockdown on top of a lockdown in a city already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

Members of the National Guard have dozed on the marbled floors of the Capitol during rest stops, with their weapons propped against the wall © J. Scott Applewhite/AP

“It’s a war zone, they basically turned this into a de facto military base,” said Gerson Murillo, 23.

Nayad Nunez, a 40 year old airport worker, said “this is something you watch in third-world countries,” as she looked at the guards lined up in front of the Capitol. “I wish I could bring them water”.

Ms Nunez is not alone in wanting to offer extra sustenance to the troops: although the National Guard leadership has begged locals not to offer gifts, the public has taken little notice.

Master Sergeant Sean Bittick, 30, a Virginia National Guard airman originally from Mississippi, said he was touched to learn that people were queueing up to donate food.

“That’s so sweet, we’re all grateful for a lot of the support we’ve been seeing,” he said. But he insisted that he and his colleagues were already well provided for, adding that he was eating “probably the best food” he’d ever had on a military mobilisation.

But the fervour for the mission is not universally shared: one Virginia National Guard corporal has been arrested for his role in the storming of the Capitol, and two members of the US Capitol Police have been suspended over their conduct. A senior US official said that extremism had risen among military ranks in the past year.

Still, some residents welcome the heavy security presence. Frederic Yonnet, 46, a harmonica player who has started performing online concerts during lockdown and lives just blocks from Congress, said the troops made him feel safer.

“When you know that some of the people on [January 6] came with their weapons I think it’s proper to show a proper response,” he said.

The president’s supporters have for the most part disappeared from view. Brian White — waving a flag and wearing a Trump hat but no mask — was all alone as he shouted demands for “justice”.

The 59-year old part-time builder decided to drive up from Florida, but none of the pro-Trump organisers he’d heard about responded to his messages about meeting up.

“I believe that God has sent President Trump as our president and he’s going to have four more years,” he said.

Follow @KatrinaManson on Twitter

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