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SC National Guard's deployment in Washington faced criticism and unexpected changes

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WASHINGTON — They knew they were heading to the nation's capital, but the men and women of the S.C. National Guard didn't expect to be heating up MREs in the halls of a White House office building. 

Rows of camouflage stuck out against the old, tan walls and the white and black checkered tile of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Stacks of clear riot shields were set aside to dry. The Harry S. Truman bowling alley was just beneath their combat boots in the basement. Some who weren't craving their vacuum-sealed government dinners opted for the vending machine.

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Jerehmy Guerry and Robert Sarvis eat their packed MREs while sitting on the floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building while waiting out the weather on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Washington D.C. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Their mission, to protect the perimeter around the White House in Lafayette Square, had hit a roadblock. It was raining and there were reports of lightning strikes hitting near the National Mall. Secret Service brought them inside for safety reasons. 

Framed pictures of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence hung on the wall above the scene.

Nearly 500 men and women from the guard were deployed to Washington last week. Trump said he wanted to "dominate" the streets in response to protesters.

The demonstrations were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis whose death at the hands of police was captured on a video where he drew his last breath. 

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Demonstrators gather near St. John's Church at the intersection of 16th Street NW and H Street NW outside of the White House on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Washington D.C. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

In responding to the death of another African American man and as a way to show a stand against longstanding systemic racism, protesters in D.C. left their mark.

The Department of the Treasury was covered in graffiti. A restaurant near the White House had its patio umbrellas torched, leaving a nest of burned wires and cloth. Windows of every business within the proximity of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. were boarded up.

In response to the damage, the streets of the capital became a sea of uniformed men from every state. Hats and helmets with the letters ATF, DEA and FBI were donned by men in black uniforms posted on nearly every corner. 

Army soldiers in camouflage fatigues had patches with symbols of the TriStar (Tennessee), a trident (Mississippi) and the silhouette of the Capitol (D.C.).

But it is the men and women with the patch of crossed swords and a palmetto moon that have played some of the most significant roles in Trump's deployment.

Gov. Henry McMaster approved the S.C. National Guard's mission in Washington after seeing "what everybody else had seen (on TV) of what was going on in D.C.," his spokesman said.

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S.C. National Guardsmen head into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Washington D.C. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Just like that, men and women who are students and teachers, part-time and full-time employees, mothers and fathers were heading to the nation's capital to answer the call. 

One of them, 1st Lt. Joshua Anacay of Lexington, works at a pharmaceutical company. But on this gloomy Thursday night, he is in charge of providing protest security in Lafayette Square. Thousands of protesters have gathered throughout the week at the park to protest. Some have vandalized statues. Some have knelt quietly. Some have screamed loudly. 

He's always wanted to lead a mission. He didn't expect it to be this one. 

"I thought it would be overseas," Anacay said with a pinch of chewing tobacco in his lip. "I didn't think it would be here."

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Troops of the S.C. National Guard march by the entrance of the White House for an assignment to protect the grounds on Thursday, June 4, 2020. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

The government's response to the protests has been to place a perimeter around the square to protect the direct area around the White House. When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser lifted the curfew Thursday following a peaceful night with no arrests, the S.C. Guard was assigned their mission: They'd be the line of defense between the White House and the park. 

Earlier that day, as a crowd of the Palmetto State's Guardsmen armed with batons and riot shields filled the sidewalk outside of the White House, they received some motivation. The gate was lifted, a motorcade of black SUVs sped out of the White House Complex. Pence looked out the window at the South Carolina unit and gave them a thumbs up. 

They were in for a long night. 

Answering the call 

South Carolina's National Guard has a long history. Founded in the 1670s, it is one of the oldest Guard units in the United States and has been involved in some of the country's most notable conflicts: the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, the Gulf War and the War on Terror. 

Today, there are more than 10,000 men and women who are part of the S.C. National Guard. And 2020 has kept them busy. More than 1,000 S.C. National Guard troops are deployed overseas in Kuwait, Iraq, Columbia, Syria, Germany and Afghanistan. Some 500 more were deployed to help law enforcement establish a presence during protests throughout Charleston and Columbia. 

There are 460 who have been activated to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. A few soldiers are stuck overseas because of the Pentagon's precautionary travel ban during the spread of the novel virus. 

They've even been deployed to respond to tornadoes and flooding that slammed the Palmetto State this spring.

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South Carolina National Guard patrol 14th Street NW on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

And even with the 450 who were sent to D.C. at Trump's request, there's still plenty on standby should hurricane season bring unprecedented levels of rain and wind to the state. 

But this lifestyle, usually dedicated to one weekend a month, can be intense. 

As Guardsmen on the D.C. deployment, they moved to various protest lines, chatted about missing vacations, having to leave their homes at a moment's notice and the uncertainty of where they will go next. 

"I understand the strains that these activations can place on families and civilian employers, and I want to thank you all for your continued support to the soldiers and airmen that answer the call time and time again," Maj. Gen. Van McCarty, the S.C. adjutant general, said in a statement. 

Some of the military's top officers came to thank the South Carolina men and women for coming to the capital. 

On Thursday, while the Guardsmen were parked in a convoy in the Federal Triangle, Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, met up with the soldiers and gave them challenge coins. 

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A S.C. National Guardsman takes a photograph of the White House while out on assignment in Lafayette Square on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Washington D.C. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

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As they prepped for protests in Lafayette Square, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy took selfies with some of them and wished them luck. 

But even with praise from military leaders, criticism from the highest levels of government about the use of force also slammed the Guardsmen. 

Dominating streets 

From the start of their mission in D.C., the S.C. National Guard has faced little physical confrontation. 

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Troops of the South Carolina National Guard block off Lafayette Square early Thursday morning, June 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Their first night on crowd control Wednesday, they were stationed just outside of Lafayette Square on Pennsylvania Avenue outside of the White House perimeter. 

Only a dozen or so protesters were kneeling and sitting at the feet of nearly 100 Guardsmen armed with riot shields. Taped to a nearby wall were white notecards with the names of black Americans who had been killed by police: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Breonna Taylor among them. 

To Mia Aassar, an Arlington, Va., resident, the S.C. National Guard's presence seems to only serve one purpose: provocation. 

"Their presence, looking like that, is enough to scare people," Aassar said. "It's intentional." 

Criticism of the president's use of the National Guard in D.C. has been voiced by Democrats and even Trump's own officials. 

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House Majority Whip and a Democrat from South Carolina, was a part of the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. But he said the Guard's presence is different from what he witnessed in his days protesting. 

"There is no reason for the National Guard from South Carolina or any other state when people are peacefully protesting," Clyburn said. "This is a reverse of what took place in my day. In my day the National Guard was brought out on occasion to protect protesters from mob factions."

He added he felt McMaster has "unwittingly been drawn into Donald Trump's web" and that he believed the governor would use the S.C. National Guard for other political reasons. 

Additionally, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, the former defense secretary, have both spoken out about the use of military force and deemed it excessive. 

The protests also come amid a push within the military to identify and curb racism in the ranks. 

A February survey by the Military Times revealed more than one-third of of all active-duty troops and more than half of minority service members say they have personally witnessed examples of white nationalism or ideologically driven racism within the service.

In March, Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger asked officers to create a policy to remove Confederate-related paraphernalia from all of the branch’s bases.

Just days before their deployment to D.C., the S.C. National Guard account tweeted that it had "been brought to the command's attention that there have been reports of posts made to social media concerning racial discrimination" and they were conducting a military investigation.

The interactions between D.C. protesters fighting for racial equality and S.C. Guardsmen doing their job have been peaceful.

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Jolly Ranchers candy are passed out to South Carolina National Guardsmen on Thursday, June 4, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

On Thursday afternoon, as a convoy of more than 20 military vehicles parked in the Federal Triangle, passersby took pictures and posted them to social media. Humvees and troop carriers filled half of 14th Street. 

As people approached the Guardsmen, they were kind. They waved back at people when they waved. They smiled when their picture was taken. They made small talk. One officer was handing soldiers and pedestrians Jolly Ranchers, like it was a Fourth of July Parade. 

The road ahead

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Demonstrators take a knee along the newly painted "Black Lives Matter Plaza" on Saturday, June 6, 2020 in Washington D.C. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

On Friday, after several days of peaceful protests, the D.C. mayor said she thought it was time for troops to leave.

"We don't think soldiers should be in the nation's capital patrolling or policing the streets," Bowser said.

While standing on 16th Street, she made another announcement.

It was the street that St. John's Episcopal Church is located on, where Trump received criticism for the photo-op in front of the building. 

It was the street where hundreds of protesters Friday night shook the fence line of Lafayette Square and chanted "Black Lives Matter" in the rain. 

It was the street where S.C. National Guardsmen stood in the park, where after leaving the White House to return to their post, a bolt of lightning struck the ground near two soldiers earlier that morning. 

Now, it's no longer 16th Street. Bowser revealed it would now be "Black Lives Matter Plaza" and it was painted in massive yellow letters on the asphalt.

On Saturday, the National Guard Bureau said housing arrangements had changed for Guardsmen because of budgetary issues with the city of D.C. They had moved out of the hotel they were staying at after Bowser said "DC residents cannot pay their hotel bills," in a Twitter statement.

During the day, thousands marched down Constitution Avenue to honor George Floyd. Guard units helped block off roads and close streets for the peaceful demonstration. In a tweet Saturday, during the protest, the S.C. National Guard said they'd stay "as long as needed."

It's not clear when the S.C. National Guard unit will leave Washington, but they'll travel down Black Lives Matter Plaza when the soldiers are called home. 

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A photograph is made of the "Black Lives Matter Plaza" on 16th Street near the White House on June 5, 2020. Andrew Whitaker/Staff

Reach Thomas Novelly at 843-937-5713. Follow him @TomNovelly on Twitter. 

Thomas Novelly is a political reporter based in Charleston. He also covers the military community and veterans throughout South Carolina. Previously, he wrote for the Courier Journal in Kentucky. He is a fan of Southern rock, bourbon and horse racing.

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