The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the Capitol, National Guard troops reflect on their historic role

Team leader Sgt. Nikolas Torres, a member of the New Jersey National Guard, right, talks to his fellow soldiers Friday outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

On Jan. 6, as his 12-hour shift as a forklift operator at a Delaware BJ’s was coming to an end, Markeyse Bryant watched live coverage of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on a break room television. Like most Americans, he was stunned by what he saw. But Bryant also knew he might soon have a role to play in this unfolding American political drama. He told his boss to take him off the schedule for the next week. Then he went home and packed his gear.

At midnight, Bryant, a 19-year-old private first class in the Delaware National Guard, got his orders. He was being sent to Washington to help protect the Capitol.

“Hey, Ma, just got the call,” he said to his mother as he left the house and headed to join his unit. “Stay safe,” she called after him.

Soon Bryant was on a bus with fellow Guard members headed to Washington. It was his first visit to the nation’s capital. Armed with his M4 rifle, his first assignment was to provide security as other National Guard members erected a perimeter fence topped by razor wire at the Capitol.

“My boots first hit the ground January 8 and I’ve been here ever since,” Bryant said in an interview last week in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, where the Guard has established its temporary Capitol headquarters.

Bryant is one of the more than 30,000 National Guard troops sent to Washington since Jan. 6. They have come from every state, three territories and the District. It is a deployment without parallel. Men and women from around the country leaving behind jobs and families and friends in the middle of a deadly pandemic to protect the seat of government from an insurgency, safeguard an inauguration and the transfer of power and reassure a nation that the rule of law would persevere.

As U.S. Capitol attack unfolded, some Hill staffers remembered their school-shooting drills

That was almost three months ago. Now the razor wire has come down. The fencing that formed a metal moat around the Capitol is slowly being removed. But 2,280 National Guard troops remain, some of whom have been here from those first shaky days when anxiety was sky-high and democracy was in the balance.

“It was eerily quiet when we got on the ground,” said Nikolas Torres, a sergeant in the New Jersey National Guard who has been at the Capitol since his unit arrived Jan. 8. “There was just a weird feeling because it was two days after everything had happened. I know a lot of my guys were very anxious. But we got on the ground, got situated and pretty much immediately went to work.”

Those were the long, cold days after the attack and before the inauguration when everyone was on high alert and Washington was gripped with disgust and disbelief about what had happened and fear about what might come next. There were rumors of a second attack being planned and others about an effort to disrupt President Biden’s inauguration.

Torres, 30, had been deployed with his unit to Jordan in 2019. They returned to New Jersey just before the coronavirus shutdown and spent much of 2020 helping with coronavirus relief and working with hospitals and health-care efforts. When he watched the Jan. 6 attack taking place, Torres knew he might be deployed again, and he was angry. Not about being deployed, but about what he was witnessing on television.

“This is something you would see overseas, not anywhere at home,” he said. “It’s like, that’s the Capitol, that’s unacceptable.”

Pelosi taps commander of D.C. Guard to become House sergeant-at-arms

Five thousand miles away in Oahu, Sesolo Cocker, a sergeant in the Hawaii National Guard, watched the same images and had a similar reaction.

“I was kind of hoping [to be deployed],” Cocker said. “I was like, ‘Hey, man, that’s our nation’s Capitol. They better send us.’ ”

Within days, Cocker, 28, left behind his job as a longshoreman and his wife and three children to fly with his unit to Washington. It was the first time he had been to the District, and he felt goose bumps as he drove past the city’s iconic buildings and monuments. These were structures he had only seen in movies or on the news, and now he was there to protect them and the government.

“I’m actually here, you know, where the president is,” he said, remembering his arrival. “It was surreal for us guys from Hawaii.”

In the days leading up to the inauguration, Cocker’s unit was assigned to assist police in securing bridges leading into the District. He sat in his Humvee near the Memorial Bridge, an M4 at his side, and was struck anew by his mission.

“It was pretty crazy,” Cocker said. “I was telling my boys because, you know we all went to Afghanistan, and I was telling them, ‘Whoa, this is like the real thing, man. Like, we’re not fighting other people, it’s our own people. It kind of opened my eyes, like, holy smokes.’ ”

Clement Okine had a much shorter trip when he was deployed to the Capitol on Jan. 10. Okine, 34, is a first lieutenant with the New York Air National Guard but lives with his family in Gaithersburg. He and his wife both work at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and he is also studying for a doctoral degree at Morgan State University. With three young children and one on the way, it was a busy time for Okine to be deployed, but, he said, that’s what he signed up for.

“You’re always ready, always there. Ready for that call,” he said. “You don’t know where it’s going to lead.”

For Okine, who emigrated with his family from Ghana to Colorado in 2010, it was another opportunity to honor the oath to the Constitution he has sworn many times.

“This is definitely one of the times where it’s literally being translated,” he said. “If you mean your words, and if you lift your right hand and you swear that oath, this is the opportunity to actually live up to that oath. As service members, we take it very dearly.”

National Guard members allowed back at Capitol after they were banished to a parking garage

For much of their deployment, the men and women of the Guard have mostly been anonymous to District residents. Their outward face has been hidden behind masks, behind fences, behind guns. Those posted on the streets say the reception of locals was nervous at first, but increasingly grateful and welcoming. Many say they are greeted warmly by passersby, congressional staffers, senators and representatives. Children have brought them homemade cookies and cakes. When they are in uniform in supermarkets or restaurants or the hotels that have become their home away from home, strangers walk up to thank them for being here.

Kristy Singletary lives in New York, where she works for Verizon as a diversity inclusion manager, but the 34-year-old first lieutenant serves in the D.C. National Guard. She arrived at the Capitol on Jan. 16 to help prepare for the inauguration, including coordinating the activities of Guard units from all the states and territories.

Singletary said despite the circumstances that led to the call-up, the experience has been a rewarding one, particularly in terms of how the Guard and U.S. Capitol Police have worked together.

“It’s been great to see how receptive and how appreciative they are of our forces here,” she said. “That’s been a great feeling in terms of how we were all able to come together to accomplish this mission.”

For these Guard members and many like them, their historic deployment to secure the Capitol will remain etched in their memories forever, providing many indelible moments they would never have experienced otherwise.

Cocker spoke with pride about when he and fellow Hawaii Guard members saw a statue of Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I in the visitors center and had their photo taken in front of it. Singletary felt history under her feet as she watched Kamala D. Harris inaugurated as the first Black, first Asian American and first female vice president. Okine recalled saying hello to a senator he passed in a hallway.

“She turned around and said hi back,” he said, laughing. “It was a great feeling for me. I went back and told my wife and she was excited.”

For Bryant, the 19-year-old private first class from Delaware whose deployment to the Capitol was his first visit to Washington, nothing has escaped notice.

“The amount of history that was made during my time here, I think that’s the biggest thing I’ll probably remember,” he said. “I don’t plan on forgetting anything that I’ve seen here or the experience I’ve had here.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Clement Okine emigrated from Ghana to Colorado when he was a child. He emigrated in 2010.