Soldiers Involved in Flying Helicopter Low Over DC Protesters Have Been Disciplined, Army Says

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Wisconsin National Guard soldiers fly a UH-60 Black Hawk
Wisconsin National Guard soldiers fly a UH-60 Black Hawk as part of a night flight exercise in Madison, Wis., April 30, 2020. (Wisconsin National Guard photo/Emma Anderson)

The Army investigation into the National Guard's use of low-flying helicopters during a June 2020 demonstration in Washington, D.C., found a "systematic lack of understanding" of how to use military aviation to respond to civil disturbances and resulted in disciplinary action taken against several individuals involved in the operation.

Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of the Washington, D.C., Guard, launched an 15-6 fact-finding investigation after reports surfaced of D.C. Guard medical evacuation helicopters hovering low over a crowd near the Capitol One Arena on the evening of June 1, 2020.

"The 15-6 that was appointed by Maj. Gen. Walker in the D.C. Guard found that the use of the helicopters in particular ... was not prohibited by law or policy; however, there was a very general lack of understanding of how to use, how to employ helicopters in civil disturbance support operations," an Army official told defense reporters Wednesday in a background discussion of the report.

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But given the chaotic nature of the situation on the ground at the time, "the conduct of the pilots and the others involved in the operation that evening were considered reasonable," the Army official said.

The actions "were not considered to be misconduct," the official added. "They were considered to be performance issues."

Based on the findings, Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Martin "will [take] or has taken appropriate administrative action against a number of individuals involved in the set of circumstances," according to the official, who would not release the details of the actions taken, or the identities of the soldiers who were disciplined.

"Corrective actions and disciplinary actions have been taken," the official said.

It was plain that the helicopter crews did not have a clear understanding of their mission that night, Army officials said.

One unnamed Guard member, who was aboard a UH-72 Lakota helicopter, said he thought the mission was to provide a "constant, obvious presence" and to deter criminal activity, the report states.

The mission that night was to "fly low, be loud ... fly low over the crowds," said the Guard member, whose name was redacted in the report.

One Army official told reporters that the investigation found that there were different understandings of the mission that night.

"Some crews thought they were to circle and observe, and some crews thought they were supposed to provide that obvious presence," the official said.

Another unnamed Army official said it was clear to him that Guard members on the ground that night did the best they could in a difficult situation.

"These pilots and these leaders reacted to the situation and the emergency nature that was there, and they took action to protect their fellow Guardsmen and others that were on the ground," the official said.

The service has not released the follow-on Army Inspector General and Defense Department Inspector General reviews of the incident.

The findings from all of the reviews of the incident resulted in the service implementing new procedures and protocols for the use of Guard forces and aviation assets in civil disturbance scenarios, Army officials told reporters.

"Immediately after this event, we instituted a very strict ... approval process for the use of the National Guard, not just [for] the Metropolitan Police Department, but any agency that is requesting them," a third Army official said.

"That approval process takes a hard look at everything from the orders processed, so we don't get into interpretation of task and purpose for units, all the way down to, would aviation be approved? As you can see from that day to today, aviation has not been approved or utilized in any type of these events."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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