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3 National Guard members describe rush to duty after Capitol riot

National Guard troops leave the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Brandie Santana’s phone rang in the evening after she finished her shift as a hospice nurse at Cavalry Hospital in the Bronx. Television news was still showing images of rioting that day at the U.S. Capitol, some 225 miles away, and she realized what was coming.

“I pretty much knew we were going to get the call,” the 40-year-old sergeant with the Army National Guard’s Military Police said in an interview on the plaza outside the Capitol. The building “looked like it was being overrun,” the 20-year veteran of the Guard said.

Few of the almost 25,000 National Guard deployed to bolster security in Washington during this week’s inauguration had much time to plan before grabbing their uniforms and gear and heading out to join a security buildup not seen in the American capital since the Civil War.

It was the same for Private First Class Josef Haas, 19, who finished his military police training in December. “I was just getting off shift when I got the call” about 2 p.m. on Jan. 7 while riding in an ambulance as he returned from a run to Garnet Health Medical Center in Harris, New York, as an emergency medical technician.

Haas said he was notified the “Capitol was being ‘raided’” and was initially told the unit didn’t know “if you’re coming because you are new to the unit.” But 30 minutes later he was called back and told “pack your stuff, you’re going to D.C.,” he said on the plaza alongside Santana and another colleague, Sgt. Sofia Castellano.

They are three Guard soldiers out of more than 1,000 from New York and its 482-member 104th Military Police Battalion of the Army National Guard. Almost every U.S. state has sent National Guard troops to past inaugurations, part of a tradition that dates back to the Guard’s predecessor at George Washington’s inauguration in New York City. But never have so many been called to service.

Tensions over the Capitol’s security were on display Monday, when a rehearsal for the inauguration was abruptly canceled after a fire was reported not far from the historic building. Law enforcement quickly called for the building’s perimeter to be tightened, but authorities soon signaled that the fire, near a freeway overpass, wasn’t a threat.

The armed National Guard members patrolling the blocked-off U.S. Capitol area say they hope their presence is all that’s needed to intimidate anyone seeking to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power in the world’s oldest democracy. They said they see the use of firearms as a last resort.

The goal “is always to deescalate the situation, whether that’s just talking, whether that’s through our interpersonal skills, to try to calm people down,” Santana said.

“We want to make sure no one is getting close enough to us to take our weapon,” Santana added.

It’s a real fear after the Jan. 6 riot, when one law enforcement officer being beaten by the crowd said he heard people shouting “shoot him with his own gun” before he got free.

For some, the sense of mission was boosted by first-ever visits inside the Capitol, which has wall-sized paintings by John Trumbull of Washington resigning his commission in the military to become president and the surrender of British General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781.

“I felt like I was in the Vatican,” Castellano, 28, said outside the domed building. She said the visit increased her determination to help protect it. “I got a moment to take it in and take a breath.”

Castellano, a six-year veteran of the National Guard, had just finished her shift as a Nassau County police officer when her call to duty came at 10:15 p.m. on Jan. 6. She was on her way with the 104th the next day.

“This is a moment of history, the world is going to be watching and we are going to do our best holding the Capitol,” Haas said. “We’re not scared to be here.”

Like many of the troops, Castellano is eager to do her duty and return home, which could happen by week’s end if all goes smoothly.

“At the end of the day, we all want to get home to our families,” she said.

Even so, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser has said the longer-term threat from domestic terrorists and white supremacists means nothing will be the same in the capital.

“We have to take another posture in our city that is more domestic-terrorist focused than external to our country and act accordingly,” Bowser said in an interview Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Now, we don’t want to see fences. We definitely don’t want to see armed troops on our streets. But we do have to take a different posture.

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© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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