Members of the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment of the Army National Guard met with a mixed reception when deployed recently to Washington to assist law enforcement in protecting the White House and surrounding area during protests and demonstrations following the death of George Floyd.
Most came away feeling their mission was success while also playing a role in a historical event in the struggle for civil rights.
The detachment included Greene County residents, including Sgt. 1st Class Joe Morehouse. About 1,000 soldiers from the Tennessee National Guard unit from across the state were deployed between June 4 and 9.
It’s been a busy year for the 278th, whose soldiers have assisted with aiding tornado victims, the ongoing effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and then assisted with crowd control following public unrest after the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African-American, at the hands of several Minneapolis police officers.
National Guard personnel “are trained, equipped and prepared to assist law enforcement authorities,” said Sgt. Arturo Guzman, public affairs officer for the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
Knoxville-based Guzman was also part of the National Guard detachment airlifted to Washington.
Guzman said that by the time the 278th arrived and deployed near the White House, the violent protests immediately following Floyd’s death had subsided. Peaceful protestors took their place.
‘PROUD TO BE THERE’
“When we got off the bus, there were people who were ‘thumbs-up’ and glad we were here and others who were not. It was kind of mixed,” said Morehouse, a Mosheim resident whose military service began in 1991. Morehouse is supervisor of the Greeneville Memorial Armory on Hal Henard Road.
Like Guzman, Morehouse felt the unit was participating in an event that will be remembered in history as part of the long civil rights struggle by African-Americans.
“I was proud to be there. That’s a part of why we wear this uniform, so people have the opportunity to protest peacefully,” he said. “It had deescalated a whole lot by the time we got there. It was a much different situation. It was a peaceful demonstration.”
Morehouse said members of the 278th remained in the background to provide support if needed. Troops carried shields and other riot gear, but were unarmed.
“We were fairly distant from the crowd,” which was “a mix of all races and all ages,” Morehouse said.
“I think everybody was proud to be there,” he said. “Any time they get the opportunity to do what they train for, they enjoy it. It was a successful mission.”
Guzman said the National Guard serves in many ways.
“We’ve been putting our soldiers out there to serve the community. These are citizen soldiers and it takes a lot for these guys to put their lives aside to answer the call,” Guzman said.
Gov. Bill Lee authorized deployment of the troops to Washington.
“Our mission was to assist the local law enforcement with civil unrest,” Guzman said. “We were just there to make sure their First Amendment rights were protected. All of those protests were peaceful.”
After arriving at the Air Force base near Washington, members of the 278th were moved to the National Guard armory in Washington and briefed on their mission. Guard troops were tested for COVID-19 and deputized to operate as special police.
They were issued body armor, face shields, shin guards, masks and batons.
Members of the unit were placed in “strategic locations” in the city, including Lafayette Square near the White House front lawn. Part of the mission was to protect statures and other “national treasures” from vandalism in downtown Washington, Guzman said.
Local police were grateful for the help.
“We had our riot gear and we had anything we needed to protect ourselves entering D.C.,” Guzman said. “We were ordered to downgrade and we didn’t have our weapons. We flew in with our weapons and when we went through the intake process we were downgraded to no weapons.”
The presence of weapons could suggest an unwanted “escalation of force,” he said.
“It was simply we were there to relay the proper message and that really helped to defuse the message to people who were there with the expectation of confrontations,” Guzman said.
MISSION A SUCCESS
The National Guard soldiers stayed out of sight or in the background. Not all demonstrators were happy to see them.
“The peoples’ perception shifted very quickly. We were coming down there from (assisting) with COVID-19. We came from being hometown heroes to being regarded as objects of oppression,” Guzman said. “Some individuals gave us fist bumps, but other people said we were on the wrong side of history and we were supposed to protect them. We definitely had a mixed crowd with mixed reviews and mixed reactions. It was definitely a shocker for some of our guys.”
Overall, the mission was a success, Guzman said.
“There were peaceful protests going on. We were there to react to to any civil unrest and be supportive of local law enforcement. There were people chanting and dancing and just making their voices heard,” he said. “Fortunately, we did not encounter any civil unrest or react to any violence toward us, so that was a phenomenal mission success.”
Some guard units were deployed in Nashville after George Floyd’s death and destructive rioting took place.
“We had some of our Guardsmen protecting the capital, and the crowd asked the guard to out their shields down, and the (commanding officer) gave the order to put their shields down for the crowd to know we are standing with you, not standing against you,” Guzman said.
Troopers of the 278th “were honored to be part of the support effort in D.C., our nation’s capital. They were just honored to be part of history,” Guzman said.
“Generally speaking, it was a success seeing history and being there and being able to contribute,” he said. “In our hearts, we knew we were doing the right thing. We were not there to oppress anyone. We were there to protect their civil liberties. We’re all in this together and we understand we have a long way to go.”
PRAISE FOR GUARDSMEN
Morehouse had praise for the National Guard detachment that deployed with scarcely more than 48 hours’ notice.
“The guys were able to mobilize quickly. I’m extremely proud of everybody’s effort,” he said. “Everything happened so quick.”
The regiment’s 4th Squadron has National Guard members from upper East Tennessee, including Greeneville.
East Tennessee members of the 278th were flown by a unit of the Tennessee Air National Guard from McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville to an Air Force base near Washington. Members were also tested for symptoms of COVID-19 before loading gear and equipment.
The unit takes pride in living up to Tennessee’s “Volunteers” motto, Morehouse said.
“Our guys have a very deep sense of pride in that motto and you can tell how quickly the guys were able to mobilize,” he said.
Guzman said the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment has already distinguished itself this year.
“It’s been back-to-back, but this is what we train for and 2020 isn’t done yet, so whatever 2020 has in store, we’ll be ready,” he said.