A Year Later, a Guardsman Who Responded to the Capitol Riot Recalls Delays and Uncertainty

The District of Columbia National Guard stand outside the Capitol.
In this Jan. 6, 2021, file photo, the District of Columbia National Guard stand outside the Capitol, after a day of rioting protesters. (John Minchillo/AP File Photo)

"Eric," a Guardsman from Maryland, went to work largely unaware of what was brewing at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Then, "the phone calls started coming in."

He quickly headed to his armory in Maryland, expecting he'd be sent to the Capitol to combat one of the most violent efforts to upend democracy in the last 200 years of American history.

But the noncommissioned officer, whose name has been changed and who was granted anonymity in order to be able to speak candidly about his experiences without fear of reprisal from National Guard leadership, said he spent much of that evening waiting instead of acting.

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"We probably had our orders changed eight-nine times in a 12-hour period," he said.

Finally, in the early hours of the next day, he and about 50 other Guardsmen boarded buses into Washington, D.C., arriving around 6 a.m. on Jan. 7. They spent the next 24 hours guarding the central seat of American power, a governing body few thought at risk only days before.

That inaction and indecision foreshadowed the rest of his deployment to D.C., and it mirrors the lack of progress that has been made on the military issues that arose from that day.

The past year has also served to further reveal the scope of the problem that military leaders, members of the National Guard and state leaders face when it comes to the force that became the embodiment of a government reinstating control after the chaos of that day.

Since Jan. 6, 2021, lawmakers have searched for answers about the Guard's delay, and the digging is expected to continue into a second year.

In March, a pair of Senate panels brought in Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of the D.C. National Guard at the time of the Capitol riot, who testified that it took more than three hours for him to get approval to deploy from time the Capitol Police chief first made a "frantic" call to him asking for help. In Walker's account, the response was delayed by Pentagon officials' concerns about "optics" and "unusual" restrictions that prevented him from deploying a quick reaction force without higher approval.

Former Defense Secretary Christopher Miller separately testified to the House Oversight Committee in May, defending the department's response at a hearing that largely devolved into partisan sparring rather than providing new insight into the Pentagon's actions.

In November, a Pentagon inspector general report contradicted Walker's testimony, finding that Pentagon officials "did not delay or obstruct the DoD's response" to the attack, though Walker has refuted the report.

‘We Had No Intel’

Eric said that his struggles did not end with questions over the deployment.

Once he and his unit arrived in D.C., the question "became 'what are we going to do here?'" He described a situation in which he and his men were expected to maintain a constant state of full alert despite a lack of planning and information.

"I can't just stand at 100% security posture for an indefinite amount of time. ... That appears to be what the initial and ongoing command philosophy was," he said.

"Mission analysis, mission planning, troop leading procedures -- none of that was happening. None of it," Eric added, his voice still rising with frustration.

"That is one thing that just absolutely drove me up a wall because my dudes were suffering, you know?" he explained. The biggest detail that stuck out to him was the hours soldiers would spend guarding empty streets in freezing temperatures.

In what would become a clear sign of the lack of coordination and planning for the deployment, one unit was forced to rest and recover in a parking garage until lawmakers like Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., intervened.

One particular detail that sticks out to Eric is the lack of intelligence and information about the possible threat he and his men were there to deter.

"I was getting intel from friends that work for other agencies," the senior NCO said. "We had no intel in the Guard, none."

A Senate staff report released in June noted that a key contributing factor to Jan. 6 "was the failure of the Intelligence Community to properly analyze, assess, and disseminate information to law enforcement regarding the potential for violence and the known threats."

The soldier who spoke with Military.com quickly began to wonder: "Do I need 100 guys to stand in a straight line for 100 yards and stare out into the abyss and freeze their asses off?"

From his perspective, it seemed like "there were political folks playing politics with soldiers per usual."

"I just think that a lot of higher-ups didn't think through what the mission was," he said.

A House committee empaneled to investigate Jan. 6 is also looking into the Guard deployment. Much of the panel's work has been behind closed doors, but a committee report last month detailing its reasons for holding former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress after he refused to testify provided a lens into its questions about the Guard, highlighting an email Meadows sent Jan. 5 saying National Guardsmen would be on hand Jan. 6 "to 'protect pro Trump people' and that many more would be available on standby."

In the coming months, the committee, formally known as the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol, is planning on holding public hearings to "tell the story" of the attack, committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., has said.

"We will talk to the National Guard people who ... sat for over three hours ready to come help the Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police defend the Capitol, but they were not authorized to go," Thompson said Sunday on CNN when asked about what to expect at the hearings. "There's a belief that a lot of what happened on that day wasn't a comedy of errors, but a planned, coordinated effort."

Ultimately, Eric said the situation "got better as more units came in," and he has no reservation about the underlying philosophy behind the mission.

"If a bunch of people started storming the Capitol right now ... I would drive to my house and grab my stuff and drive right down to D.C. again, no questions asked," he said.

"That's the general consensus across political lines within my unit as well," he added.

Streamlined Process

Meanwhile, the Pentagon has recently announced that it has streamlined the process to activate the Guard for problems in the country's capital, including "formally clarifying the process by which Federal and local partners request assistance for both pre-planned and time sensitive events."

"The Secretary of Defense is now the single approval authority for all requests that would involve District of Columbia National Guard personnel participating directly in civilian law enforcement activities," a Pentagon statement released on Dec. 30 said. The Pentagon also announced that it has designated the Executive Secretary as "the single entry point for these requests."

Congress has also sought to streamline the process on its end, recently passing legislation to allow the Capitol Police chief to request National Guard help without the Capitol Police Board's prior approval.

While a more streamlined process to deploy Guard troops is welcome for leaders in the federal government and agency heads within the District of Columbia, it also draws attention to the fact that the National Guard has been a go-to solution for many problems in the last two years.

The Guardsman who spoke with Military.com noted that, prior to deploying to the U.S. Capitol, he had deployed to support Maryland's response to COVID-19 early in 2020, then again in the summer in anticipation of riots in Baltimore following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

In total, Eric said that he has been "on orders" -- deployed at the request of state or federal governments -- for eight months in the last two years.

81 Rioters with Military Experience

Another issue that still lingers for the military a year after the riot is that of extremists in the ranks -- both active and retired.

The latest figures from the George Washington Program on Extremism show that 81 of the more than 700 people arrested for their actions on Jan. 6 -- about 12% -- had some form of military experience. Of that 81, five were currently serving and one later shipped off to basic training. Out of that group of five currently serving, all but one were Army or Army National Guard, and only one has since been separated.

Pfc. Abram Markofski, who was among that group of five, serves with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry Regiment, a National Guard unit based in River Falls, Wisconsin. He is still in the Guard despite pleading guilty to one charge stemming from his actions on Jan. 6.

Since that day, the Pentagon has begun to address the problem with working groups and studies that have added new guidelines and definitions of extremist activity. Data recently released by the Department of Defense's inspector general shows that the problem is military-wide and not insignificant.

However, experts and data from Jan. 6 clearly indicate that veterans are a key concern when tackling extremism. Of the 81 people with military service arrested that day, 73 were veterans.

William Braniff, the director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), told reporters at an event on extremism in the military last month that "when military individuals or veterans participate in violent extremism domestically, they really punch above their weight, having an outsized impact."

Furthermore, Braniff's data shows that these veterans "were affiliated with no fewer than 120 different organizations around the country [like] local militia groups or local white supremacist groups without a national footprint."

"The idea that somehow the Department of Defense ... is going to be able to access what is really a geographically decentralized, local issue -- it's just not realistic," Braniff added.

Experts in extremism have repeatedly told Military.com that intervention to prevent radicalization is most effective when done early -- before a person becomes too entangled in ideology.

Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran who has spent years studying extremism in the ranks, previously told Military.com that "the insider threat is never going away, and it is going to constantly evolve."

"No one policy change, no one administration is going to do this," Goldsmith said.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Pentagon Plan to Fight Extremism in the Ranks Is a Start, But Experts Say Problems Loom

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