The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Upset by veterans who stormed the Capitol, these vets decided to clean up trash the mob left on the streets of D.C.

Around 200 veterans and other volunteers gathered in downtown D.C. on Sunday to pick up trash and remove hateful stickers and signs left behind from the Capitol riot. (Ben Peifer)

When Capitol Hill was in chaos on Jan. 6, David Smith was there.

Smith, 40, was distributing hand-warmers to homeless people nearby when the siege started. He watched in disbelief as a menacing mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.

“It was pretty gut wrenching to see,” said Smith, who retired less than a month ago after serving in the Navy for 13 years.

As a veteran, he was especially horrified, he said, to learn that his fellow vets participated in the insurrection, including Jake Angeli, also known as the “QAnon Shaman,” and Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed in the Capitol.

“That was a dagger to the heart,” said Smith, who was a combat medic in Afghanistan. “Just because you served in the military doesn’t give you impunity to storm the Capitol building.”

On his commute home to Germantown, Md., Smith spotted remnants of Wednesday’s riot strewn around the streets. Trash littered Pennsylvania Avenue and adjacent areas, and signs and stickers with racist and fascist symbols and messages were “all over the place,” he recalled.

Smith decided he wanted to do something about it, calling on a group of fellow veterans and volunteers to do a thorough sweep of the area around the Capitol and downtown D.C. Beyond ridding the area of hateful markings, Smith hoped to reinforce that the veterans who participated in the siege do not represent them all.

On Jan. 10, close to 200 volunteers congregated at McPherson Square, trash bags in hand. They fanned out and spent two hours collecting “Stop the Steal” and other pro-Trump paraphernalia that had been littered during the riots, and also used scrapers and adhesive remover to peel off signs and stickers featuring logos and symbols from various neo-Nazi and alt-right groups.

“There was so much good energy, especially in the fallout of something so negative,” Smith said.

Volunteers divided into five groups, each led by a veteran, who guided them along a mapped route to the Capitol.

“It was like a massive street sweep,” said Smith. “We left no stone unturned. It was amazing.”

Smith arranged the cleanup operation on social media through an organization he started in June called Continue to Serve. His goal is to create a community of veterans who stand up for justice and equality.

“We want to empower like-minded veterans to get busy in activism and community service,” he said.

Smith said he was driven to create Continue to Serve in response to the racial unrest following the death of George Floyd.

“When I saw Lafayette Square get cleared, I broke into tears. I couldn’t believe this was happening in America, and that [law enforcement] would attack peaceful protesters,” he said.

He promptly posted “a long diatribe about veterans needing to stand up” on a D.C. Reddit page.

Messages expressing similar sentiments from fellow veterans in D.C., Maryland and Virginia poured in. A small group decided to collectively attend Black Lives Matter protests, with the aim of providing a sense of security for demonstrators, while supplying medical and logistical support.

“We just want to get out there and amplify and support their voices in order to ensure that we are sticking to our oath, which is to defend the Constitution, thereby ensuring the rights of all our citizens,” Smith said, adding that he and other veterans at times acted as a mediator between police and protesters over the summer to ensure they felt safe while marching.

Hans Palmer, 35, a Marine Corps veteran, came across the Continue to Serve team at Black Lives Matter Plaza last July.

“They were wearing ‘Vets for BLM’ shirts, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m a veteran,’” Palmer recalled. He asked to join them.

“We’re not all conservative, and that’s a stereotype I really want to erase,” Palmer, who served in the Marine Corps for six years, said. “We need real systemic change in this country, and I think that grass-roots, on the street, direct action, is the way to go.”

Beyond supporting social justice and honoring their oath to protect the Constitution, Continue to Serve hopes to ensure that like-minded veterans know they’re not alone, Smith said.

“I want our organization to be diverse; I don’t want it to be singular in thought,” said Smith, who grew up in what he called a “hyper conservative” family. “I just want social progress, and it seems to me that these are ideals that all people should want.”

Crews began to clean up and assess the damage at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 7, a day after hundreds of pro-Trump rioters stormed the building. (Video: Ray Whitehouse/The Washington Post)

Ashley Carothers, 34, an Air Force veteran who got involved with Continue to Serve in the summer, agreed. She is also deeply disturbed by the siege.

“To see veterans and active duty members partaking in attacking the Capitol was just appalling,” she said. “The oath is something that’s ingrained in you. There is nothing that undoes that oath; you continue those values through your entire life.”

Although she left the military in 2013, Carothers has vowed to continue serving the country through activism and volunteer efforts.

Since the summer, Continue to Serve has grown into a community of 45 veterans, most of whom live nearby. A few others from around the country have also stumbled upon the group on social media, and despite being at a distance, they’ve asked to join.

That includes Lindsay Rousseau, 40, a veteran based in Los Angeles, who connected with Smith in August. Since then, Rousseau has been working remotely on research and logistics with Continue to Serve.

“We are letting people know that veterans are not a homogenous group,” Rousseau said. “We really take to heart that we swore an oath to the Constitution, we did not swear an oath to a person.”

Although Rosseau couldn’t be at the Capitol cleanup herself, she was happy to see dozens of fellow veterans banding together, she said.

Smith is now focused on growing Continue to Serve, hoping to host monthly gatherings, including more cleanups, food drives, and other events to bring the veteran community together.

“We want this country that we fought for to be the place it’s meant to be,” he said.

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