In California, more than 2,400 National Guard members rushed to major cities as protests erupted following the death of George Floyd. But one member of the California Air National Guard refused the order to go.
"If I made the decision to go along with it, I would sort of be compromising who I am in that moment," he said.
The Guardsman's senior command has warned him about possible disciplinary actions, he said, but he doesn't yet know what they'll be. He asked to remain anonymous to prevent a worse outcome.
Though he anticipated some consequences, he said he wasn't comfortable carrying a weapon around people exercising their First Amendment rights. As a person of color who sympathizes with the Black Lives Matter movement, he said he believes the Guard's presence stifled protests.
"What we're told is, 'Discourage people from criminal activity,' and things like that," he said. "But that doesn't necessarily matter. What's going to be communicated on the ground when you see people in uniform with weapons, standing in formation?"
He said he joined the Guard expecting to do humanitarian work and was surprised by the call to police his own state.
"We have people dealing with COVID. We've had people dealing with natural disasters and things like that," he said. "But to actually go out and be this invading force? Many people are not comfortable with it. They feel like it's not really what they signed up for."
When the protests began, more than 20 states called up their National Guards, and President Donald Trump ordered Guardsmen to patrol the streets of Washington. The President also threatened to send active-duty service members into cities across the country.
Since then, veterans service organizations and GI rights groups have been fielding calls from troops asking about their options for refusing orders.
"We've seen a real uptick in people in the National Guard mostly, but some in the Reserves, who are facing call-up and who are saying, I don't know that this is something I can do," said Bill Galvin, a counselor with the GI Rights Hotline.
He said troops have expressed concerns about the risk of moral injury, their lack of riot control training, and the possibility of acting against the Constitution. At the peak of the protests, Galvin said, he took several calls a day.
Refusal to deploy can bring consequences, though there are still a lot of unknowns about how command structures will treat it.
"There's a range of possibilities," Galvin said. "Everything from a military court martial and jail time to more administrative punishments that might even include being kicked out with a bad discharge."
"It's also quite possible that commands could just ignore it," Galvin said. "They could say, 'Well, we've got enough people otherwise. So we're just going to forget about this.'"
Veterans peace advocacy group About Face said it knows of about 10 service members who've taken concrete steps to avoid deployment. Many more have asked for support in resisting orders they think are illegal.
One is an active-duty Army soldier stationed in the Midwest. Though his unit never deployed, he said he wouldn't have gone if they had. The soldier asked for anonymity because he expects reprisal from his command and the public.
He said some of the riot control tactics and equipment used in D.C. reminded him of things he saw during his deployment to Iraq.
"To me it's like that violence that we do overseas is coming back home to roost."
National Guard officials at the Pentagon have said they're not aware of any widespread disciplinary issues related to the protest response. It added that Guardsmen deployed to D.C. executed their mission with compassion and professionalism.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2020 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC.
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