Images of thousands of armed soldiers guarding the seat of American democracy ahead of next week’s presidential inauguration have shocked Washington and the world.
For National Guard Citizen Soldiers and Airmen, who gave up their day job to answer for duty, the experience of being called in in the wake of the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump mobs has surreal summer. This caused them to doze off on the marbled floors of the Capitol during rest stops, with their weapons propped up against the wall.
Specialist Christopher Kelly, a Virginia National Guard soldier, told the Financial Times he was amazed at its beautiful interior and “a little” tired.
The 27-year-old paralegal is more used to occasionally helping manage hurricane responses rather than staving off another violent insurgency in the capital, but said morale was good and troops were prepared.
“We have been trained to handle riot control and security, so if we need it. . . so be it, ”said Kelly, who was armed, like others, with an assault rifle.
Security in Washington, which has been significantly beefed up since the pro-Trump mob stormed Capitol Hill with relative ease, is still tightened. More fences go up this weekend as a zigzag of sand-colored vehicles, painted to blend into the Middle Eastern background, blocked the roads leading to the congress.
The military authorized 21,000 troops to protect Joe Biden’s inauguration, easily exceeding 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 to talk to his future grandchildren about his role in the mission. It was “awesome” to be part of the story, he said, although he admitted a few nerves and said he was “sad” that it had come to this.
“I think it is currently one of the safest places in the country,” he added.
Outside the heavily guarded compound, Washington residents have described their disbelief. For them, it’s a lockdown on top of a lockdown in a city already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s a war zone, they basically turned it into a de facto military base,” said Gerson Murillo, 23.
Nayad Nunez, a 40-year-old airport worker, said, “It’s something you watch in third world countries”, looking at the guards lined up in front of the Capitol. “I wish I could bring them water.”
Ms Nunez is not the only one who wants to provide additional subsistence for the troops: although the leaders of the National Guard begged the inhabitants not to offer gifts, the public paid little attention.
Staff Sgt Sean Bittick, 30, a Virginia National Guard aviator from Mississippi, said he was touched to learn people were lining up to donate food.
“It’s so kind, we are all grateful for the support we have received,” he said. But he insisted he and his colleagues were already well off, adding that he was eating “probably the best food” he had ever had in a military mobilization.
But fervor for the mission is not universally shared: A Virginia National Guard corporal has been arrested for his role in the assault on the Capitol, and two members of the U.S. Capitol Police have been suspended for their conduct. A senior US official said extremism had increased in the military ranks over the past year.
Still, some residents welcome the strong security presence. Frédéric Yonnet, 46, a harmonica player who started giving concerts online during the lockout and who lives a few blocks from Congress, said the troops made him feel more secure.
“When you know that some people on [January 6] came with their guns, I think it’s appropriate to show an appropriate response, ”he said.
The president’s supporters have mostly 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 out of Florida, but none of the pro-Trump organizers he had heard of responded to his dating messages.
“I believe God sent President Trump as our president and he will be four years old,” he said.
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