They were impossible to miss, largely because there were thousands of them in town for the weekend, and they were stationed on every single corner. But what were the National Guard troops doing during the Pope’s visit anyway?
As it turns out, a lot of schmoozing.
“People out walking their dogs would bring them over, so we played with dogs,” said C., a National Guard member who asked to go by his first initial because of privacy concerns. “People asked us what we were doing there, wanted to talk about football season. They came over to talk and were generally just being really nice.”
C., 33, was stationed on the western edge of Center City, at a checkpoint between Rittenhouse Square and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He worked the overnight shift Friday night through Sunday, a 12-hour stint that commenced at 6 p.m. each evening and ended shortly before sunrise.
And to be clear, while there was a fair amount of downtime and a lot of eating (more on that in a bit), the experience shared by the National Guard troops in town for Pope Francis’ visit and the World Meeting of Families was not glamorous.
Many were housed in large temporary structures built to last only for the few days of their visit. C. compared his quarters to a “massive circus tent” with air conditioning and carpeting with at least 150 cots in one single room.
Although, C. noted, because the troops were all working 12-hour shifts, the room was never crowded; half of the occupants were on duty at any given time. That said, about three or four hours of sleep a night was all that could be expected.
Most of the troops were bused into the city last Wednesday from around the state and departed Monday afternoon. The unarmed guardsmen spent the first day and a half setting up and going through training, and were dispersed throughout the city Friday. For C., most of the work the first night on patrol involved keeping vehicles in or out of the traffic-restricted areas, and talking to the pedestrians that went by.
“It was really quiet,” C. said, but a theme emerged: People wanted to give them stuff. Lots of stuff. Mostly alcohol and food. The first night, a guy came by and offered up sandwiches and a six-pack of beer. The troops obviously couldn’t partake in the brews, but they enjoyed the sandwiches while the man who brought over the bounty worked his way through the entire six-pack on his own, chatting about this and that for a couple hours.
The troops were instructed to walk around the areas they were patrolling and introduce themselves to the locals, and both residents and business owners were moved to offer what they could. C. said he was offered full bottles of alcohol, six-packs of beer, gelato, coffee, pizza … one woman, returning from a long night out at 5 a.m., went up to her apartment and emerged with spinach and kale smoothies. C. suggested local pizza joints must have donated – and hand-delivered – dozens of pies over the course of the weekend. When the troops walked down the street, they were flagged down constantly by people in bars who wanted to buy them shots.
And some of the newbies who’d never been to Philly, C., said, “were introduced to the glories of Wawa for the first time.”
“It was a very jovial atmosphere,” C. said. “It was the most Philly I’ve ever seen Philly, in terms of the good things that the city brings out in people, because of the nature of the event.”
Saturday night, things were a bit trickier. There seemed to be little coordination between the Guard and the other security forces, which led to some confusion and frustration. There was also a rumor among the troops that the city didn’t really want or need them – that it was the governor who had insisted on their presence, and perhaps that had led to some friction.
The primary job on Saturday and again Sunday until the Pope’s departure was to assist the festival-goers as they came and went from the events on the Parkway. And on Saturday, especially, as they poured out around 10 p.m., plenty were in need of cabs that couldn’t get anywhere near the festival grounds. Transportation for people who weren’t having medical emergencies but were unable to walk on their own was really lacking, C. said. The Guard had to step in.
“The broad strokes were there,” he said, “but a lot of the assistance for small things was made up on the fly.”
And then there was one other issue: One of the most common things the National Guard troops were asked all weekend was for directions. But most of the troops aren’t from the city, and couldn’t provide any (or at least, couldn’t provide good ones). C. heard one guard who had never been to Philadelphia before tell some pilgrims to head West to U-City in order to eventually get East … and that apparently happened a lot.
The feedback from residents was largely solid, though. C. said a number of people – particularly women – reported feeling safer than ever, because there were police and troops on every Center City corner. And those residents, he made sure to point out, were happy to have them in town.
“It was a good experience overall,” C. said. “I think they did go overboard with the security, although I’m sure the counterargument is nothing bad happened, so I guess it worked. But New York City and Washington, D.C. do not need to call the National Guard to have events like this. They also don’t need to cause such chaos to the average commuter and residents.”