John J. Driscoll describes himself as “the man opportunity tapped on the shoulder.”
He works from an office in the U.S. Capitol. When he enters the building each morning as the sun rises he sees Lady Liberty sparkling atop the dome, a “breath-taking view.” His daily runs take him in and around the National Mall among the museums and the monuments to America’s past. For a lover of American history, it is truly a dream job.
A dream job that is until you contemplate the reason he is where he is and the national unrest that landed Driscoll, a brigadier general and commander of the Massachusetts Army National Guard, on this special duty assignment in our nation’s capital.
Driscoll, who calls Springfield home, is commander of the Joint Task Force Operation Capitol Response.
Since late January, he’s been living out of a hotel room in Washington, D.C., and commanding a team of National Guard troops from across the country. The task force has ranged from close to 30,000 men and women at its highest point to now almost 2,500. The troops were mobilized in response the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol in support of the Capitol Police.
Driscoll will be on duty until at least May 23 unless the U.S. Department of Defense decides to end the mission sooner.
He says it was pure chance that he wound up in command, having traveled to D.C. in late January simply to check on the wellbeing of about 500 Massachusetts Guard members who had volunteered for the Capitol duty. While there, he met Maj. Gen. William J. Walker, adjutant general for the District of Columbia.
As Driscoll recalls it, he interacted with Walker, engaging with him about experiences the two had in common from military-to-military relationships the Guard has in Africa. That was when Walker pivoted the conversation to suggest he was in search of an “angel” to assist him at the Capitol, Driscoll says.
It was then that Driscoll found out he had a new job, and, as he shares with a laugh, “Now, I feel like Clarence (the angel) in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ I’ll earn my wings.”
With nearly 30 years of experience in the National Guard, Driscoll is more than adequately prepared for this assignment.
Springfield’s congressman, U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal couldn’t be more proud to have a Massachusetts person, let alone someone from Springfield, in charge of the Guard detachment. “I was pleased,” says Neal. “John Driscoll is a pretty modest guy, but, when you look at his credentials, you are even more struck by his modesty.”
A Bay State native, the 54-year-old general grew up in Melrose, the son of an Army veteran and his straight-off-the-boat from Ireland wife. Driscoll says he “always knew” he wanted a career in the military, but his mother insisted he would have to go to college first.
He did just as she asked, graduating in 1989 from Northeastern University with a degree in mechanical engineering and a Reserve Officer Training Corps commission as a lieutenant in the Army. With his Springfield-born wife, Merribeth Morin, whom he met in an ice rink playing hockey (while she was studying at Harvard), Driscoll headed off to four years of years of active duty as a field artillery officer with the Army. (That came at about the same time Iraqi despot Saddaam Hussein invaded Kuwait, with the Army’s 1st Cavalry, which meant Driscoll headed to southwest Asia for the first Persian Gulf War.)
After active duty, Driscoll came home to Massachusetts where he’s served with the Army Guard since 1994. He rose steadily through the ranks, serving in a variety of command positions until his promotion to general officer in 2018 when he took over as head of the state’s Army Guard.
He jokes, “Every time I get set to retire they promote me.” The promotion to general followed a year on duty as an operations commander U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
Congressman Neal is among the members of the Massachusetts delegation who have welcomed Driscoll to both the command position and into their offices. Neal well remembers that afternoon of Jan. 6, as protesters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol, while he and members of his staff were at work in the House Ways & Means Committee offices.
As the crowd morphed from a somewhat orderly protest to a mob who undertook a violent assault, Neal watched in dismay from a window and remembers saying to his staff, “Where is the National Guard?” Memories of the ensuing insurrection when he and his staff had to move a mammoth conference table in front of a door to block the mob’s entry are still haunting, Neal says.
This week, from the same window, reflecting on that moment is history, Neal says the need continues for the Guard troops at the Capitol to ensure peace and safety in the “citadel of democracy.”
“I never thought I’d see the day where in the parking lot on the east side of the Capitol there would be National Guard drills taking place each morning,” Neal says. “I do think they made the difference here because the Capitol Police were outnumbered.”
Neal says he believes the Guard presence since January has been justified based on the intelligence monitored by the FBI. “There is still an impending threat to the Capitol,” he says. “We are all still awaiting a report as to exactly what happened that day. The FBI has now arrested 300 people, and the investigation continues. As it goes on, they are here to keep order.”
Exactly how long the Guard presence will continue is yet to be determined. The latest activation order runs through late May, and a new group of some 400 Massachusetts Guard members arrived last week, replacing others who had returned home.
“I think we’re all anxious to see the fences come down,” says Neal. “This is still the citadel of democracy for our nation, but we are likely to have a Guard presence for the foreseeable future.”
Despite the circumstances and the challenges he faces, Driscoll says he’s pleased – and humbled – to be where he is.
“It all comes down to the perspective you’re looking at it from. This is a historic mission. Every Guard member here is a part of history,” he says. “We are a part of history whether we like it or not and (even though) it’s disheartening we have to be here to guard the Capitol.”
Driscoll, whose days stretch from early morning through evening, bookended by daily briefings and end-of-day reviews, stresses the Guard detachment is “meant to augment security at the Capitol and work with the police,” not to serve as a security force per se. He adds, “The mission we’re doing here should provide reassurance to the country that democracy is still strong. We are augmenting the planning capacity of Capitol Police that was overwhelmed on Jan. 6.”
Massachusetts was fortunate, says both Driscoll and his boss, the state’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe, to have more than enough volunteers to be activated considering the challenges of the past year.
Many Guard members were called up by Gov. Charlie Baker (and are still on duty) to assist with COVID-19 pandemic response. Some went put on active duty last spring in response to the unrest in Boston in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. In addition, troops generally face annual training deployments each May and June.
Driscoll is like every service member on duty at the Capitol. Each has a single room in a hotel, due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Each gets three meals a day, all individually packaged and picked up wherever they’re assigned. Because of COVID, “there are no chow lines,” Driscoll says.
While he works seven days a week, the rank-and-file troops generally work five days on and get two days off with eight-hour shifts daily. Each day Driscoll “walk(s) the line,” as he describes it, checking on his soldiers. He works side-by-side with some people he knows well and others he’s just met for the first time. His sergeant major, for instance, is Luis Garced, from Wilbraham.
“One of the most gratifying parts of my life to see and meet young men and women from all across the nation,” Driscoll says. “They are very motivated and proud of their mission.”
Sounding as much like a recruiter as a general, Driscoll says he most grateful to the Guard members’ families and civilian employers for supporting their loved ones’ and employees’ service. “I send my most sincere gratitude to our families. I cannot thank them enough,” he says, adding, “The employers are just as important for these great men and women in uniform for being flexible.”
It’s these sorts of interpersonal skills that Keefe says prompted him to have Driscoll appointed as his commander for the Army Guard.
“John Driscoll is probably the most ethical, sincerely nice individual I’ve ever met,” says Keefe. “John truly, truly loves people. I’ve watched John socially jump in and interact with people from all walks of life, all ages. He truly loves the human race.”
Driscoll, like many who have enjoyed visits to the Capitol before Jan. 6, acknowledges it’s disconcerting that the grounds are now like a ghost town and surrounded by double fences topped by concertina razor wire. He chooses to stay positive. “I believe in the heart of America,” the general says, as he describes the view he surveys of the Capitol grounds from the top of the building. “America is strong and will survive. We survived the Civil War that literally ripped this country apart. What unites us now is greater than what divides us.”