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Pentagon may use involuntary activations to keep Guard forces at Capitol through May

Soldiers with the 206th Military Police Battalion, New York National Guard, outside the Library of Congress. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Pietrantoni)

The Defense Department is considering issuing involuntary activation orders to National Guard units to protect the U.S. Capitol through May, even as thousands of those service members who have been in Washington since January are set to return home this weekend, two defense officials told McClatchy.

The National Guard deployment was in response to the deadly attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. On Inauguration Day, more than 26,000 National Guard service members were protecting the nation’s capital. About 5,200 have remained, but their mission was set to end on Friday.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week directed that 2,300 service members continue to protect Congress through May 23, citing a request from the U.S. Capitol Police. Throughout Wednesday, National Guard leaders were speaking to their state governors and Guard leadership to find volunteers to come to Washington for the next two months.

One defense official told McClatchy the units may be placed under involuntary activation so that instead of individual service members from various states filling the request, an entire unit and its leadership would do it, which the official said would improve command and control.

Often the National Guard fulfills requests by getting governors to support deployment, then that governor tasks the state’s Guard units to issue voluntary activation orders, which take into account a service member’s ability to leave a full-time job.

In times of war or natural disaster the activation orders can be involuntary, which provide service members additional protections from losing their civilian jobs due to their military responsibilities.

Having to rely on involuntary activation reflects the hesitation some states have expressed in sending forces to the Capitol, or extending the ones already there, citing the many demands those units have faced, including supporting COVID-19 response and natural disaster relief.

Michigan National Guard troops account for almost 1,000 of the approximately 5,200 service members still guarding the Capitol, and those forces will be returning home this weekend, said Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Michigan’s Guard members “were some of the first troops on the ground to answer the call to protect our nation’s Capitol Building from security threats,” Leddy said. “There is no intention of extending this deployment.”

California has also sent members of its National Guard to protect the Capitol since January. The 200 that remain “will be heading home” this weekend and there are no plans to extend the mission in Washington, said California National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Jason Shiroma.

Kansas has 50 National Guard members at the U.S. Capitol, but “they will be back mid-month and will not be extending,” the Kansas National Guard said in a statement to McClatchy.

Florida received a request to help protect the Capitol in the days following the inauguration, but declined to send forces.

“Florida was not (and is not) able to support based on current COVID requirements within the state and ongoing federal mobilizations and training requirements,” Florida National Guard spokesman Will Manley told McClatchy in a statement.

While it did have service members in the capital to support the inauguration, “the South Carolina National Guard will not be supporting the mission in D.C.,” said South Carolina National Guard spokeswoman Capt. Jessica Donnelly.

Other Guard units, including Kentucky and Washington state, said they are ready to assist if needed.

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute on Wednesday released an annual survey that found that trust in the military has declined from 70 percent in 2018 to 56 percent in 2021. Although the poll did not identify specific reasons for the decline, institute experts told reporters that last year’s military’s response to protests over the death of George Floyd could be one of several reasons for the drop.

Kathleen McInnis, a national security expert who recently testified before Congress on civil-military relations, said the optics of having a continued military presence surrounding Congress did not help.

“The capitol is supposed to be the heart of our democracy,” McInnis said. “A key question is, what does it say that the military is the solution to this challenge?”

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© 2021 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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