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Standing Guard, Picking Up Trash and Getting Booted From a Hotel. Inside a Special Forces Unit’s Controversial Deployment to D.C.

9 minute read

Lieutenant Colonel Brandon Holmer spent weeks preparing to deploy. His U.S. Special Forces unit was set for another overseas assignment later in the year, so he and his troops from the Utah National Guard had recently finished up the necessary paperwork and planning. Then, on the morning of June 1, his phone rang.

Like everyone else, Holmer had seen images of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, asphyxiated by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. Holmer had seen the news reports of the demonstrations that had followed, and the violent unrest that had erupted in cities across the country. Protests had filled the streets in Utah’s state capital of Salt Lake City during that week, so Holmer suspected that’s what his military commanders wanted to talk about when he picked up his phone.

“When they first called, they said, ‘Hey, we need 200 guys to support the capital,’” Holmer tells TIME. “I was like, ‘OK, I guess things got worse overnight downtown in Salt Lake.’ Then, at some point, someone mentioned ‘D.C.’ Then I stopped and said, ‘Wait, the nation’s capital?’”

The National Guard is typically called upon by state governors when there is a massive hurricane, earthquake or natural disaster. On rare occasions, Guard members are sent across state lines to help out a neighbor. But after protests spread across the U.S., President Donald Trump issued an urgent nationwide call for additional National Guard troops to come to the District of Columbia.

Utah was one of 11 states to answer the President’s plea for help. By midnight, all 200 Utah National Guard members had loaded their M4 assault rifles, boxes of ammunition, and other equipment onto a military jet and were on their way to the city. Once the troops arrived, bleary-eyed, it didn’t take long before they found themselves in the middle of a politicized confrontation and the most severe civil-military divide in a half-century.

By week’s end, the Utah National Guard members were part of a force of 4,900 National Guard members that were positioned across the District of Columbia, sent from almost exclusively Republican-led states: Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee. Just outside city limits, active duty forces with the 82nd Airborne Division were at military bases in Maryland and Virginia on standby as Trump weighed whether or not to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act.

In the eyes of many Americans, including the peaceful demonstrators protesting Floyd’s death and the continuing scourge of policy brutality in America, Trump was wielding U.S. troops as a political tool, a force to suppress their freedom to speak. Dissent came from within the Pentagon and among retired four-star admirals, generals and former Defense Secretaries who voiced concern that Trump’s deployment undermined democratic norms by politicizing the military.

The President’s threat to use military force in the face of largely peaceful protests dredged up memories of the Kent State shooting in 1970, when Ohio National Guard troops killed four unarmed students after opening fire on a crowd of Vietnam war protesters. A week later, the impact continues to reverberate. Kentucky state officials confirmed another Black man, David McAtee, was killed May 31 by the Kentucky National Guard at a barbecue restaurant he owned, after a shootout with troops and police.

General Mark Milley, who serves as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, apologized Thursday for appearing in a photo-op with Trump on June 1 after protesters were forcefully dispersed by police near the White House. “I should not have been there,” Milley said in a pre-recorded video speech to National Defense University graduates. “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake.”

Less than 24 hours after the Lafayette Park photo op, the Utah Guard was on the ground wearing helmets and other protective equipment in the park outside the White House. The troops had earlier stored their assault rifles and ammunition at the nearby D.C. Armory, and took up positions with orders to prevent the protests from spilling into White House grounds.

The Utah National Guard, like any other state, is made up of part-time soldiers. These are men and women who, in their everyday lives, are veterinarians, dentists and construction workers. Some of the members were on their first assignment out of basic training. But what makes Utah National Guard different from other states is that it includes the 19th Special Forces Group, which consists of experienced Green Berets with several combat deployments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

About a dozen Green Berets, including Holmer, were sent to the District of Columbia. They’re easily identifiable because of an arrowhead patch and a tab that says “SPECIAL FORCES” on their left sleeves. When photos of the troops on the street began to circulate, questions began to swirl as to why elite forces were needed, especially since the protests were mostly nonviolent.

Holmer understood why his unit’s presence was viewed critically. On June 4, National Guard commanders made the decision to pull the Special Forces patches off the uniform in an attempt to avoid sending the wrong message. “If you say, ‘Green Beret,’ people think of Rambo. And that’s not right at all,” he said. “My direction was to exercise patience. I told them not to be confrontational. You’re not there to stare them down or anything like that, you’re there to keep the peace.”

To protesters, the very presence of the military, let alone Special Forces, was a bullying tactic. No matter how nice the National Guard members may have been, their armored vehicles, helmets and flak jackets sent another message. “It shows that they think something unruly is going to happen,” said Carl Leak, 41, a librarian from Lorton, Va., who showed up to the protests with his wife and 17 year-old daughter.

When Leak and his daughter attended the March for Our Lives protest against gun violence in 2018, he didn’t see any soldiers, Leak said. “It seems you only see an overt military presence when it’s a marginalized group that’s demonstrating,” he said.

The interactions weren’t all confrontational. Major Brent Magnum of the Utah Guard said he was at times emotionally stirred by what he saw on the streets. On a muggy evening June 3, he saw a Black female protester walk up to a phalanx of police officers and fan them with her poster board sign. “I heard her say, ‘I know you’re hot and you probably don’t want to be here,’” Magnum said. “It touched my heart to see someone who was in pain looking for a way to ease the discomfort of another person who represented—dressed in a police uniform—the very thing she had come to protest.”

Other times, the troops found themselves with little to do, so they found ways to help. Early one morning after a night shift, Holmer’s soldiers spotted a maintenance crew painting over graffiti on a building near the White House. The Guard members wanted to assist, so they asked for some brushes and applied coats of tan paint while other soldiers raked up discarded plastic bottles, food wrappers, and trash in Lafayette Square. “With 200 of my guys, we were able to do it very quickly,” Holmer said. “No one made us do it.”

A difficult part of being on duty in an American city is overcoming lure of fast-food restaurants instead of the military-issued Meal, Ready-to-Eat, commonly known as the MRE. But Holmer’s troops were told to avoid going out to eat while in uniform and to exercise caution if they did order food. The caution may have been warranted. The South Carolina Post and Courier reported Thursday that South Carolina National Guard members had filed a report with the Pentagon that they had found shards of glass baked into a pizza that they ordered while staying at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in the District of Columbia.

On June 4, the Utah troops were forced to leave that same hotel after the city stopped paying the nightly bill and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser sent a letter to Trump requesting all out-of-state National Guard be withdrawn. “Look, I know there’s bad blood between certain political entities. That is not our business,” Holmer said. “We had already planned on sleeping on the armory floor or a big warehouse or something like that. We got put in a hotel in the first place, that was over the top. So we didn’t get involved in the mess.”

The Utah soldiers packed up their belongings onto a bus and headed to a hotel in Virginia near the Pentagon. The troops spent three more nights positioned near the White House, and in the absence of any riots or looting, they were finally cleared to return to Utah on June 7. “I wish it hadn’t been necessary, but I’m really proud of the fact we answered the call,” Holmer said.

The Utah National Guard landed in Salt Lake on that day, underwent testing for coronavirus and were instructed to self-quarantine at home as they awaited the results. As for Holmer, he’s back at home, once again waiting for his phone to ring—maybe this time for that overseas deployment.

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com