Update: National Guard troops forced to move out of the Capitol complex Thursday evening have been allowed to return following an outpouring of outrage from lawmakers and the public.
“Brig. Gen. Janeen Birckhead, Inauguration Task Force Commander, confirms that troops are out of the garage and back into the Capitol building as authorized by the USCP Watch Commander and the troops will take their breaks near Emancipation Hall going forward,” according to a statement to Military Times by Air Force Maj. Matthew Murphy, a National Guard Bureau spokesman. “Our troops are going to hotel rooms or other comfortable accommodations at the end of their shifts.”
National Guard troops forced to move out of the Capitol complex told Military Times they were finally allowed to return late Thursday evening.
“Because of the MASSIVE backlash over this, we are now being allowed back into the Senate building,” one National Guard soldier told Military Times. “We’re going to make a big show of marching back into the building.”
Another soldier told Military Times that “we were in the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Center parking garage and they kicked us out of that parking garage to make us walk half a mile away to the Hart Senate Office Building parking garage where we can’t be seen.’
Both soldiers spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The move back to the Capitol came after a tremendous reaction by lawmakers and the public.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, announced in a Tweet posted at 11:39 p.m. Thursday that she “Just received text from Guard Commander: the last Guardsmen will clear the garage by 2330 tonight.”
Duckworth earlier tweeted that she just “made a number of calls and have been informed Capitol Police have apologized to the Guardsmen and they will be allowed back into the complex tonight. I’ll keep checking to make sure they are.”
Duckworth said she made her statement after reading a story in Politico, which first reported about the situation.
National Guard officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the return of the troops to the Capitol.
There was immediate fallout from the news of the troops’ removal, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordering the return of Texas National Guard members.
How it started
Some National Guard troops who came to Washington to protect the Capitol are less than thrilled with congressional hospitality.
And they say this isn’t the first time they’ve been snubbed by the city.
After several days of pulling 12-hour shifts patrolling the Capitol, one soldier told Military Times that troops were ordered to leave the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building Thursday evening when not on patrol and move to a cramped parking garage with limited restroom facilities and increased risk of COVID-19.
Instead of being able to rest up after long shifts in the building they were protecting, the troops had to bug out to a location about a half-mile away, the soldier said.
“We were told we had 25 minutes to get everything out of the basement,” said the National Guard soldier, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. “We had to move everything. That included all the gear, computers, riot gear. Everything had to be figured out immediately. A lot of soldiers were resting in there, catching a nap between shifts.”
The basement had been used as a combination sleeping, staging, briefing, eating and rest area for hundreds of troops keeping the Capitol safe in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 siege in which five people died.
The soldier, whose unit initially was put up in a local hotel, said that many later-arriving Guard troops had to find places to sleep in the Capitol.
At first, they were sleeping in the basement, then in the fifth-floor tennis courts, the soldier told Military Times. Then it was back to the basement.
Officials from the D.C. National Guard, which is continuing to support Capitol Police, told Military Times that the troops were moved out of the Capitol because Congress is in session.
“As Congress is in session and increased foot traffic and business is being conducted, Capitol Police asked the troops to move their rest area,” the DCNG said in a statement. “They were temporarily relocated to the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Center garage with heat and restroom facilities.”
The soldier said he and others are concerned about the garage being a soft target and an easy place to contract COVID-19.
“Some troops were able to get the first round of vaccine, but not everyone,” he said. “We have had a couple of soldiers in our company quarantined, and were told there are already 50 to 100 positive cases of COVID. Knowing we have all shared the same room several hours a day, of course we are worried about COVID and being an extremely soft target for someone taking a cheap shot at soldiers.”
The soldier also wondered if concern over COVID-19 was behind the order to move. Last week, Military Times first reported that 43 troops had contracted the virus. Guard officials on Thursday did not respond to requests for an update on that figure.
The soldier said that this was his second time he found himself asked to abruptly leave after coming to protect the nation’s capital.
“In June, we got called for civil unrest supporting the Park Police,” he said. “On the sixth day of the mission, after a 12-hour day, we were told that we had three hours to rest and the D.C mayor wants you to get out of your hotel. So this is not the first time we’ve gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to supporting D.C.”
The soldier joked that “the next time D.C. calls, we will let it go to voice mail.”
Another Guardsman, speaking to Military Times on condition of anonymity without authorization to talk to the media, also complained of a lack of gratitude on the part of those they have left their jobs, homes and families to protect.
“So the politicians are definitely not grateful for us at all,” the soldier told Military Times in an email. “The day after the inauguration we are no longer allowed inside the Senate building but we are still guarding them. So when we are ‘on break’ we will ... have to either sit outside or in the bus. "
The complaints come as the National Guard is beginning to drawdown its force of 26,000 troops brought in to protect the inauguration of President Joe Biden in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump. And they serve as a bookend to stories and photos that emerged from the Capitol of troops sleeping on floors that emerged as they first began arriving in Washington in response to the siege.
The soldiers speaking to Military Times said facilities were still inadequate for so many troops.
“I just want people to know how the senators have been treating us,” the second soldier said. “They keep increasing the Guard force and decreasing the space we are allowed to rest in.”
Both soldiers expressed disappointment that Capitol Police were being blamed for the move.
“I hate that senators are blaming this on the Capitol Police,” said one via email. “The Capitol Police have been nothing but estática we have been here to help them. They have been offering us drinks and snacks, showing us around the buildings. They did nothing but act like coworkers to us.”
In a statement to Politico, Capitol Police spokesperson Eva Malecki said the department recently asked that troops’ shifts be reduced from 12 hours to eight in order to allow for additional rest hours away from the Capitol complex. The statement did not explain why the Guardsmen were forced into parking garages.
Members of Congress reacted with outrage and befuddlement following the reports of the substandard Guard facilities.
“This is unacceptable and must be fixed,” said Navy veteran Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., on Twitter. “All week these troops have been protecting the Capitol. I’ll be making my office available for any guardsmen who need it and encouraging others to do the same.”
“Simply unacceptable,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa., wrote in a tweet. “You’re always welcome in my office. As a former Iowa National Guard member, I know how hard it is to wear those boots. Thank you for your service everyday.”
By late in the evening, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said that she had received word that “all National Guardsmen are welcomed back to the Capitol tonight — No more parking garages.”
Several lawmakers said they plan on investigating whether congressional leadership, Capitol Hill police or National Guard leaders erred in prematurely moving the units without proper support facilities in place.
“We must have accountability for this disgraceful treatment,” said Rep. Peter Meijer, an Army veteran who served in Iraq. “I met w/ Michigan National Guard and Air Guard tonight prior to their departure and am tracking other potential mobilization issues that will be vetted and investigated as appropriate.”
After a year in which the Guard has seen record activations between COVID, natural disaster and civil unrest response, the soldier said the treatment at the Capitol will not help keep soldiers and airmen in the Guard’s ranks.
“This is going to absolutely destroy retention” the soldier said. “Everyone here has absolutely zero morale left. "
Reporter Leo Shane III contributed to this story.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.