The D.C. National Guard’s deployment of helicopters to quell racial justice demonstrations in Washington last summer, a chilling scene in which two aircraft hovered extremely low over clusters of protesters, was a misuse of military medical aircraft and resulted in the disciplining of multiple soldiers, the Army said Wednesday.
In an announcement, the Army said one helicopter “hovered under 100 feet” over the heads of people in the nation’s capital on June 1 as D.C. police and federal agencies worked to disperse crowds protesting police brutality after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis days earlier.
An Army official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid, acknowledged that a UH-72 Lakota helicopter at one point hovered a mere 55 feet off the ground. A Washington Post investigation last year estimated the height was 45 feet.
As military commanders rushed to support law enforcement that night, the D.C. Guard ordered five helicopters into the sky.
Senior officials, including then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, have maintained that the mission was to observe crowds and help police track people’s movements, and they have dismissed assertions that the maneuvers were intended to frighten and scatter protesterson the streets after a curfew had been imposed.
But a redacted investigative report released Wednesday appears to contradict those claims, with some soldiers involved in the operation telling investigators they believed their mission was to deter looting and vandalism with their helicopters. “Be loud … fly low over the crowds,” said one unidentified member of the Lakota crew, describing the mission parameters as they understood them.
The low maneuvers shocked former pilots, human rights groups and military law experts, some of whom also were disturbed that some of the helicopters bore red crosses indicating their primary role as medical transports. Witnesses described the helicopters as making a deafening noise and filling the air with a violent swirl of debris. One Post reporter who observed the maneuvers later recounted pulling shards of glass from her hair.
Four of the five helicopters that flew that night were medical aircraft. It was a violation of Army regulations to use them on nonmedical missions without specific approval, the report found. Brig. Gen. Robert K. Ryan, who oversaw the mission, did not seek approval and did not know of the requirement, the report said.
Spokespeople for the D.C. Guard did not respond to a request for comment.
Although leaders lacked an understanding of how to employ helicopters for civil-disturbance missions, it was “reasonable” to deploy them, given the emergency situation, an Army official said. Doing so, the official added, was not a violation of the law.
Ryan did not direct the helicopters to scatter protesters, the report found, but an unidentified subordinate misunderstood or “modified” the general’s intent and told others the mission included crowd dispersal.
The panel of Army officials who briefed reporters on the investigation’s findings said some soldiers received administrative discipline but did not specify whom. Nor would they say whether any commanders were punished. The aircrews acted in “good faith” and executed the mission they understood, the report concluded.
Tension was palpable throughout the city well before the aircraft appeared. Earlier in the day, protesters were beaten and gassed outside the White House as law enforcement cleared Lafayette Square so that President Donald Trump could walk across the street to pose for photographs with a Bible in hand outside St. John’s Church.
Aggressive statements attributed to Ryan and others appear to have contributed to the charged atmosphere surrounding the helicopter mission.
Ryan declared it was “D-Day for the National Guard,” an operations officer recalled, according to the report. “I think that perhaps framed the mission from there on.”
The mission’s execution was flawed from the beginning, the report shows. Investigators found that no National Guard official was tasked with fielding requests from police, so that responsibility was left to an officer who “had to piece it together,” the report found.
Police and the helicopter crews didn’t use the same radio frequencies and so could not communicate directly. Some police complained that the helicopters were flying too low, interrupting communications and dispersing the tear gas they had fired.
And as video and photos of the maneuvers spilled onto social media, one of Ryan’s subordinates, who is unidentified in the report, exclaimed to his boss in a text message, “your helicopters are looking good!!!”
“OMG! I am out here too,” the general replied. “Incredible. I got special permission to launch. Full authorities.”
The next day, as D.C. officials and members of Congress demanded answers, Army officials informed Ryan there were concerns about the helicopter flights. Ryan told them the mission had been “fully vetted” by Trump.
Investigators found “no evidence,” the report says, that the use of air assets was ever discussed among senior leaders coordinating the military’s response that night.