In DC, a Maryland general commands National Guard's inauguration task force
By HEATHER MONGILIO | The Capital | Published: January 17, 2021
(Tribune News Service) — Thousands of National Guard troops are in Washington, D.C., protecting the Capitol and the surrounding area in anticipation of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration.
Guardsmen have arrived from several states around the D.C. area, including Maryland.
But the person leading the inauguration task force has roots closer to home. Brig. Gen. Janeen L. Birckhead, the Task Force Capitol commander, is an Anne Arundel County resident.
As the commander, Birckhead is responsible for leading the security efforts for the Capitol and the area around it, including the U.S. Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. National Guard troops under her command come from Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
"You might think, well, gosh, it's really cold," she said. "It's January now, and, and the soldiers had to leave their homes and come here very quickly, but their morale was really high. And you can see that in the camaraderie when they're playing cards, or they're joking around, or they're, you know, learning about each other."
While there have been pictures of members of the National Guard sleeping on the Capitol grounds, they have proper lodging, Birckhead said. The pictures were of the guardsmen resting.
Other pictures showed them playing cards or talking, which she said is an example of the bonding.
There are already National Guard troops in D.C. fulfilling that mission, but the numbers could swell to 6,000 before the inauguration on Wednesday. Maryland is not expected to send any more troops.
"But that [number] comes and goes," Birckhead said. "So it's an approximate number on any given day. ... It could be more or less as we search up to the events next week."
The Maryland National Guard's presence in D.C. for the Inauguration is not unusual. It usually provides security during the quadrennial event, Birckhead said.
But the circumstances around Biden's Inauguration are different.
The insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6 while Congress certified the election shocked the nation. The National Guard, including Maryland's, was called in Jan. 6 to help with security. Gov. Larry Hogan authorized Maryland's Guard to stay in D.C. through the election.
And then there is the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Maryland National Guard is currently running multiple missions, as it is helping with Maryland's coronavirus response, including vaccine dispersal. It has been one of the busiest years, Birckhead, the Army commander for the Maryland National Guard.
The city is quieter, she said, with fewer people on the streets than usual.
This year, the Inauguration will have no attendees. Just those providing security and the media. Although the members of the National Guard might catch a glimpse of the events, they are not the audience, Birckhead said. They are there to perform a job.
Still, it is a historic moment that the National Guard is a part of, she said. The Guard is there to support the peaceful transition of power.
"And it's been really good going out and walking the line and talking to young soldiers about, 'Do you realize you're in your nation's capital?'" Birckhead said. "And let me point out to you, 'here's the Museum of Native American history, or there's the Washington Monument.' And you can't take the beauty and history away from the nation's capital."
D.C. is not a ghost town, said Jamaal Russell, a specialist with the Maryland National Guard. There are still people on the streets going about their lives.
"It doesn't really seem anything much different," he said.
Russell, of Severn, Md., has been in the Guard for a year and a half. He received his orders to go to D.C. on Jan. 7, the day after the Capitol insurrection. The orders were straightforward. They were told what to do to best support the federal agencies at the Capitol, and that's what they have been doing.
He will also be working to provide security during the inauguration.
The energy among the guardsmen is very high, he said.
"Very energetic, very uplifting," he said.
Russell is mostly with the other members of the Maryland National Guard, but when they have a chance, the guardsmen from different states bond.
"It is actually a great opportunity because I just feel like I'm part of history and part of something essentially great," Russell said. "So that way I'll be able to one day, you know, if I ever have kids, I can be able to tell them that hey, I was in this particular event or time and I [had] some hand in it."