A Washington, D.C., National Guard major on Tuesday offered lawmakers his view of the controversial use of military helicopters that allegedly flew dangerously low over crowds of protesters June 1.
The Pentagon has yet to release the findings of an investigation launched after Army UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72 Lakota helicopters with medical markings flew low enough to kick up debris on demonstrators who were defying the District's 7 p.m. curfew, videos taken by those on the ground show.
Lawmakers from the House Committee on Natural Resources questioned D.C. National Guard Maj. Adam DeMarco about the helicopter incident during a hearing to discuss the events surrounding a June 1 clearing operation that involved U.S. Park Police launching tear gas and pepper balls at crowds of demonstrators roughly 25 minutes before a 7 p.m. curfew.
"Do you know anything about Army helicopters hovering low over Washington, D.C., relating to the event on June 1?" asked Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-California.
DeMarco said he was "informed by Park Police that there [would] be low-flying military helicopters in our area of operations."
"Shortly thereafter, I observed the first UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flying north of my position, which was, at that point, 16th and I Street," he added. "I observed the helicopter had no distinctive markings on it; however, the doors were open when I made that observation. I then assumed it was a public affairs helicopter going around taking photos of our response in support of the United States Park Police."
Later that evening, "I then heard radio transmissions over the radio -- the D.C. National Guard internal communications network -- that there was a low-flying helicopter in the vicinity of 15th Street and F Street, which is near Chinatown," DeMarco said. "The transmissions that I was receiving was that there was a low-flying helicopter and it was making the pepper spray of the D.C. Metro Police Department ineffective.
"I kept hearing this over the radio. ... I then called over to D.C. Armory operations center and spoke to an officer there and asked him if he had any information as to what was happening," he added.
DeMarco said he told the officer about "the report that I had heard. He then communicated with someone in the operations center, and I hung up the phone, and that was the last I heard of it."
On June 7, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy told reporters that he had authorized the Guard to use helicopters to "observe and report" on demonstrations in the city but would not comment further while the incident is under investigation.
Maj. Gen. William Walker, commander of the D.C. National Guard, told reporters during the same press briefing that "there was no order" given for helicopters to fly low "to disperse the crowd."
DeMarco told lawmakers, "Later reporting indicates that one of the helicopters flying in the vicinity of 15 Street and F Street had a medical red cross designation on it."
"Do helicopters, when they fly this low, is that an intimidation maneuver?" Lowenthal asked.
DeMarco said he was not a pilot, "and my aviation experience is very limited, so I can't speak to the tactics, techniques and procedures of our aviation assets and pilots."
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, asked DeMarco whether it made sense to use the helicopters for observation purposes.
"Wouldn't that be a smart and intelligent application to find out how things are moving from the sky?" Gosar asked. "Because you are kind of blinded on the ground, aren't you?"
DeMarco agreed that the "use of aviation assets for aerial observations would give you a different lens to look at the mission."
But he didn't concur when Gosar pushed him on two occasions to say "it would make it more effective."
"There is nothing more effective than the on-the-ground truth from the incident commanders or commanders," DeMarco said.
Gosar disagreed. "Oh no, no, no, no. You want to make sure you see all the things happening as they are working, and you can't see that from your perspective on the ground," he said, adding that it is not possible to have a 360-degree field of view on the ground.
"You don't know what front is moving, what front is retreating. You don't know any of that; that is why air power, I mean, air traffic is very good. I mean we use it for everyday life in cities for traffic control, do we not?" Gosar continued.
DeMarco said he had to "respectfully disagree."
"From my time overseas in combat zones, there is nothing more important than the sensors on the ground, which are our young men and women in uniform," said DeMarco, a veteran of combat in Iraq.
Rep. Don Beyer, D-Virginia, told DeMarco that his top constituent complaint is helicopter noise.
"I am trying to think in the 70 years I have lived in and around Washington -- the inaugurations ... lots and lots and lots of marches and demonstrations, of any other time unmarked, low-flying helicopters were used," Beyer said. "Can you remember any other time?"
"No, sir," DeMarco answered.
"Nor can I," Beyer said, "which is why I think it was so upsetting to so many people to have these things that ... suggested that we were in Afghanistan rather than downtown Washington, D.C."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.