WASHINGTON - Hundreds of National Guardsmen were forced out of a Capitol cafeteria and into a parking garage nearby, putting them in close quarters with moving cars, exhaust fumes and troops potentially infected with coronavirus, two soldiers told The Washington Post.
The abrupt transfer came Thursday afternoon with no explanation, the soldiers said. The cafeteria was used as a place for soldiers to rest in between guard shifts, grab a meal or conduct work like monitoring radio traffic.
Thousands of soldiers from many states remain in Washington in response to the insurrection on Jan. 6 and a mission to secure Wednesday's inauguration.
Both soldiers, noncommissioned officers in the Maryland National Guard, estimated hundreds were forced into the structure. They inhaled exhaust fumes, found few bathrooms and struggled to sleep under the harsh fluorescent lights, the soldiers said.
"I've never in my entire career felt like I've been booted onto the curb and told, 'figure it out on your own,'" said one of the soldiers, who said he served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with reporters.
"This is absurd," said the other soldier. One of his men was nearly hit by a car, he said.
Officials with the District of Columbia National Guard said soldiers who finish their duty have hotel rooms to stay. But soldiers cannot easily return to them as they conduct shifts on and off a few hours at a time for a period of a day or two.
"As Congress is in session and increased foot traffic and business is being conducted, Capitol Police asked the troops to move their rest area outside of the Capitol. They were temporarily relocated to the Thurgood Marshall Judicial Center garage with heat and restroom facilities," said Capt. Edwin Nieves Jr., a District National Guard spokesman.
One portable toilet used by soldiers was overflowing onto the sidewalk, a photo obtained by The Post shows.
Both soldiers said the coronavirus is raging among Guard members. One of them said he personally knows several soldiers who have been infected.
The soldier laughed when asked by a reporter to describe the protocols to mitigate the spread of the virus.
"There's none," he said. "We are on top of each other all day, every day. We've given up."
Nieves did not immediately return a request for comment on coronavirus protocols.
Lawmakers offered their offices in the wake of viral photos of Guard soldiers lying on concrete floors.
"Yeah this is not OK," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D.N.Y., said. "My office is free this week to any service members who'd like to use it for a break or take nap on the couch. We'll stock up on snacks for you all too."
But one of the soldiers doubted the motivations of politicians eager to score public relations wins. Lawmakers were happy to take photos of themselves delivering pizza in the days before photos of sleeping soldiers in the Capitol went viral.
“Now I feel like a wet paper towel,” he said. “You wiped me down and threw me away.”