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National Guard sergeant on D.C.: 'It reminded me of the Green Zone in Afghanistan'

1st Sgt. John O'Dougherty, whose civilian job is

1st Sgt. John O'Dougherty, whose civilian job is with the Nassau County Department of Public Works, is among the members of the Army National Guard protecting Washington, D.C. Credit: John O'Dougherty

"It’s pretty locked down here as you can imagine. But as the fences come down so do — it seems — the tension in the air, it’s a little less on edge."

So said John O’Dougherty, 59, first sergeant of the 69th Delta Company First Battalion 69th Infantry, by telephone Friday.

The fortress the nation’s capital became resembled the Green Zone he saw in Afghanistan.

The project manager and chief inspector in the Nassau County Department of Public Works is the noncommissioned officer in charge of about 100 Army National Guard men and women who were swiftly deployed to ensure the peaceful transition to a 46th president shortly after rioting mobs on Jan. 6 stormed the Capital, threatening to overturn the republic.

The National Guard Bureau said nearly 26,000 Guard troops from across the country were deployed to D.C.

"We were the first ones in" guarding the capital," said O’Dougherty, who joined the Marines when he turned 17 and reenlisted after 9/11. "We spent our first week actually on the Capitol grounds, then moved to secure a position on Pennsylvania Avenue," before joining the team that is protecting the Library of Congress, where his troops are stationed, and the Supreme Court.

Rings of fences were erected soon after the first time the Capitol was attacked since the War of 1812.

The perimeters, strictly enforced, were just one of the sweeping, never-seen-in-this-country-before protections ordered to ensure President Joe Biden’s inauguration went safely and just as planned — with its majesty intact — despite COVID-19 and then security concerns that transformed many public traditions and forced almost all Americans to watch from afar on their screens.

"It reminded me of the Green Zone in Afghanistan," he said.

"What I love about D.C. is the architecture," O’Dougherty said. "To see the juxtaposition of these great monuments surrounded by stark black fences with razor wire — it looks much more like a correctional facility than the capital I was used to." He concluded: "It was almost painful to look at."

Leading Task Force Wolfhound South — its northern counterpart is helping with COVID-19 vaccinations — in preventing any clashes that might have marred or derailed the ceremony put the spotlight on why these men and women serve.

"We were called up to do what we had to do to ensure the Constitution was upheld," he said.

"We’re a totally professional organization, nonpartisan, no political views, no personal views."

There have been fraught moments. For instance, there were intelligence reports an armed attack was planned for Inauguration Day — and then what turned out to be a propane tank fire at a homeless camp erupted that at first was thought to be a bridge explosion, he said.

Had there been any mayhem, he and his troops would have been in the thick of it.

Though they could see President Biden walking down the steps from the Library of Congress, "During the actual ceremony we were on very high perimeter, no time for sightseeing, it was maximum security effort."

Unlike the Capitol underground garage, where some unlucky troops were temporarily stationed, the Library of Congress — empty of staffers other than maintenance workers — has been much less inhospitable though troops did have to bed down in every "nook and cranny" and some had tile floor beds.

That is because their hotels in Maryland were just too far away.

In the next few days, the mission is expected to wind down, and the troops, headquartered at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan, should be able to return home.

The battalion, known as "the Irish Brigade," dates back to 1849 when it was formed to help Ireland win its freedom. It then proved its valor countless times during the Civil War — when Robert E. Lee dubbed it "the Fighting 69th" and the global wars that followed

Now it has members from every race and creed — and a couple of noncitizens, the first sergeant said.

For some of his soldiers, this was their very first drill; some of his troops had a different highlight — they saw Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in one of the corridors.

"I could not be more proud, getting near the end of my career," he said. "People worry, ‘What’s the next generation like?’ I totally trust these men and women; they can pick up that mantle and carry it on."

As for the nation: "We need to find better ways to do what we do; elections come every two years; either way the vitriol back and forth is never going to fix anything."

Washington, D.C. after the storming of the U.S. Capitol reminded 1st Sgt. John O’Dougherty of the Green Zone in Afghanistan. The location of the Green Zone was incorrect in a previous version of this article.

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