VCU students in the Virginia National Guard reflect on a history-making mission
Right: Soldiers in the Virginia National Guard look toward the U.S. Capitol building as they secure the area around the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 At least 25,000 soldiers were authorized to conduct security, communication and logistical missions in January. Among them were several with connections to VCU. (Photo by Bryan Myhr)
When Virginia Commonwealth University nursing student Christian Roeseler was stationed at the U.S. Capitol in January as an infantryman with the Virginia Army National Guard, the high level of security and military presence made him think of when he was overseas on active duty with the Army in 2018.
“It felt very similar to how I felt initially in Afghanistan,” said Roeseler, 29. “I was afraid it was going to be another scenario like that, considering what people were talking about and what people were saying. But thankfully things calmed down, things weren't violent.”
The Virginia National Guard began mustering Jan. 6 following the riot at the U.S. Capitol. Roeseler was one of 1,000 guard members called to protect property and provide a safe environment through the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 and beyond. When Roeseler was called up, 6,200 guard troops from neighboring states were expected to protect Washington.
For the seven other guard members from VCU who joined Roeseler, there were additional challenges besides their main mission of defending democracy: completing their university obligations.
Guarding a transition of power
Before the Washington mission, Roeseler had never been inside the U.S. Capitol.
“It was a little wild for me to be able to be there and have this up close and personal,” said Roeseler, who skirted specifics because the mission is ongoing, and emphasized he was speaking about his experiences as a private citizen. “I was able to see some cool things and see some places that most people don't. Considering the circumstances too, it had more weight behind it.”
It was a peaceful transition of power on inauguration day, said Roessler, who is with the 116th Infantry Brigade Combat Team National Guard unit based out of Lynchburg, Virginia. “I was very thankful for that, because no soldier likes the thought of, ‘I'm here protecting my nation or protecting democracy from our own people.’ [My fellow citizens] are on the other side of the fence. You don't want to have to do anything or want anything to happen with the eyes of the world on you. It was very, very nerve-wracking.”
For Eveline Gomez Escalante, 20, a senior biology student in the College of Humanities and Sciences who works on supply logistics with the Lynchburg-based 116th Infantry Regiment, it was the first time she had been to Washington. The mission was also Gomez Escalante’s first active-duty experience.
“It was definitely humbling. I felt like it was a major part of history. It made me feel glad and also sad at the same time that this was even happening,” said Gomez Escalante, who worked as acting supply sergeant arranging logistics for food, clothing and weapons for the guard while based in the Library of Congress and the Capitol, where she slept.
“Seeing and passing by all the soldiers that were outside of the gate, the defense [equipment] they had put up, seeing how many of them were everywhere, was definitely when I realized, ‘Wow, this is pretty crazy,’” said Gomez Escalante. “We were just there to de-escalate in case anything were to happen. Obviously, that's not what we want. We don't want anything to happen. We were just trying to keep the peace.”
Not a standard mission
Pre-pharmacy VCU student in the College of Humanities and Sciences Keith Fenlason, a captain and logistics officer with the Virginia National Guards’ 116th Infantry Regiment, went to the Capitol to work in a behind-the-scenes logistics role managing food, lodging and transportation for troops.
“When I got there on January 17, it was only a few days before the inauguration and there were lots of extra people,” said Fenlason, 33, who has already earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served in active duty in Europe as well as at Fort Bliss and Fort Bragg. “We were helping all the new units process into the area and then get transported to different missions. … We ended up having people in probably a 100 different hotels around D.C. Getting them to their missions every day was pretty hectic.”
Roeseler said the seriousness of the mission was driven home when high-ranking military leaders spoke with the guard members making clear the mission, no matter what their job or political party.
“It was a crazy, crazy environment,” Roeseler said. “But there was overwhelming gratitude. I had people thanking me all the time for being there. … I didn't hear anyone say or do anything disparaging.”
Students like Roeseler, Gomez Escalante and Fenlason can connect to the VCU Military Student Services office to find support when their obligations interrupt their studies. The office is there to assist with anything they cannot handle on their own, said Stephen Ross, director of military student services at VCU. With 1,000 students falling under the services of Ross’ office, with 300 considered active duty, guard members or veterans, the university recently earned designation as a Military Friendly School for 2021-22.
Ross counts 27 VCU students currently in the Virginia National Guard, which provides a combat reserve force for both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. Seven told Ross they were stationed in Washington for the mission to defend the Capitol and transfer of power.
“We support all military affiliated students with everything possible they need that is special because of their service,” Ross said. “The National Guard students in particular can be activated occasionally for severe weather-related events or security-related events such as what we saw around many cities this past year and what happened at the Capitol.
Assistance from the Military Student Services office can include help because of missed class time, rescheduling, dropping courses if necessary or financial assistance.
“Sometimes [guard members] can continue to get their work done and stay in classes with lots of extra work and sometimes they require extra time or later deadlines for academic requirements,” Ross said. “Oftentimes they are balancing multiple 24-hour humanitarian and security shifts while still completing academic demands.”
“The Military Student Services is a very small office that does a lot, and they're very personable,” said Roeseler, who has also worked there. “They're very, very much there for you. I had Stephen [Ross] and Tres Morley [assistant director] reaching out to me and just saying, ‘Hey, is everything OK? How are you doing? How are things going?’ Making sure I was safe and I got back safe.”
Soldiers who are students
For Roeseler, Gomez Escalante and Fenlason, the mission posed challenges to complete coursework.
“Changes due to COVID made it a little bit simpler. All my courses are virtual, so with my job in [D.C.], I did have access to the internet,” said Fenlason, who spoke early on to student services, military student services and his professors about his involvement in the mission. “My teachers have all been pretty involved and understanding. The support is good.”
Gomez Escalante had to go to Washington before the end of an intersession class was completed, creating some uncertainty.
“It was tough to manage at first, between taking an intersession course over break and then receiving such short notice about my unit needing to be deployed, as well as some hardships I was experiencing at the time,” said Gomez Escalante, who did not take a computer with her to Washington. “Not knowing whether I would be able to have sufficient internet access or what the activation would entail, I immediately reached out to my professor, who thankfully understood the situation and allowed me adequate time to be able to finish the course with a satisfactory grade.
“I also reached out to [Military Student Services] several times in regards to a course I needed a seat in before the semester began, which they helped with by letting me know points of contact to reach out to. In such an uncertain time of my life, MSS and VCU facilitated being an activated student.”
Gomez Escalante returned to Richmond on Jan. 26.
“Luckily [the guard] keeps in mind that they do have soldiers that are students,” said Gomez Escalante. “That is the reason why most people did join up because they wanted to continue their education. So they're very helpful in that aspect.”
Because of the mission to Washington, Roeseler missed the first weeks of his classes. The VCU School of Nursing began its semester Jan. 19. Roeseler’s academic adviser relayed that he was in contact with the assistant dean in nursing to explain Roeseler’s absence and challenges.
“I was actually very pleasantly excited and surprised at how understanding they were,” Roeseler said. “In the past, I've had weekends come up where I've had to be gone with the Virginia National Guard training on a Thursday or Friday. I’ve told my professors ahead of time and I've yet to have anyone not work with me anywhere at VCU.”
Professors also reached out while he was still in Washington to check on him, and when he returned, many provided him with the lecture materials he had missed.
For Roessler, returning to campus on Jan. 31 meant changing his mindset and hunkering down into his nursing studies. He said the Washington mission was an emotional time for him.
“I come from a family where a lot of people have been in the military, we even had distant relatives in the Revolutionary War, and so to be able to say, ‘I was a part of the group that was called up to make sure that this great nation continued to be democratic and be there for the citizens,’ it sounds big and grandiose to put it that way, but that's how it was established. So I was happy to be there. Yes, it was an interruption, but at the end of the day, I would do it again.”