It was 4 a.m. on May 29, hours after the Minneapolis police's Third Precinct had gone up in flames.

Caitlin Weege, a 21-year-old nursing student at Duluth's Lake Superior College, sat in the extended back bed of a big Army truck as it rumbled down the street in Minneapolis. A corporal in the Minnesota National Guard's 257th Military Police Company, she couldn't see what was going on outside, but she knew it was bad.

Weege could smell smoke from fires around the Twin Cities during the riots after George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody. She could see flickering of flames through the canvas truck top covering her and dozens more soldiers.

It's an image that sticks in Weege's mind now as jury selection is underway for the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Last year's unrest erupted suddenly. This year, though, the Minnesota National Guard is prepared for whatever may come.

Nine months after those chaotic spring nights, Weege remembers how she felt when she got out of that military truck with her fellow soldiers. Weapons in hand, they wore full riot gear, grabbed their heavy plastic riot shields and marched toward a bridge with instructions to block off roads so state troopers could do their jobs.

"I was nervous, very nervous," she said. "We didn't know what we were walking into. It became real at that point: 'Hey, this is the time to step up and do your duty and be a professional.' "

Last year's mobilization helped her and other soldiers and airmen stand ready for anything.

The Guard will activate as many people as needed and is prepared to replicate last year's full mobilization, which marked the largest domestic deployment in Minnesota National Guard history.

But it can be a difficult balance: Guard leaders say they want protesters — some of whom are friends and neighbors of soldiers — to be able to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights. Critics are skeptical, though, contending that such a strong presence amounts to overmilitarization that could quash free speech.

Guard leadership believes that in light of what happened last year, safety is paramount.

"The planning effort that's gone into this one — we're ready for this if anything happens," said Col. Scott Rohweder, the Minnesota National Guard's director of operations and commander of the 84th Troop Command. "I know we won't be caught off guard on this one."

Last summer's unrest was "larger than what we trained in the past for," he continued, "but we were able respond within 72 hours with a full mobilization of National Guard forces who were available. That response really helped us continue to shape our planning efforts and training efforts."

The big-picture goals for any unrest during or after the Chauvin trial would be to protect the rights of peaceful protesters and to free up local and state law enforcement officers by doing things like site security or traffic control. Guard troops regularly train for those types of missions.

In the event of unrest, a company-sized, quick-reaction force of 150 soldiers can be activated, with the goal of responding within three or four hours. Then a battalion-sized reserve unit of 300 soldiers can be immediately called up. After that, more can be activated as needed until all available Minnesota National Guard troops are mobilized.

"They take pride in being able to help get us back to a peaceful environment," Rohweder said. "It's not easy providing security at a site and having fellow Minnesotans screaming in your face, treating you as if you're not necessarily the enemy but treating you differently than what you're there to do. You're not used to doing these missions in your own backyard. A lot of soldiers and airmen went through difficult situations like that. Each and every one said they'd come back and do it again."

Sgt. First Class Dan Fealy of the 34th Military Police Company out of Stillwater is an instructor at the annual trainings for reaction forces. Trainers teach five different tasks: riot control, unit radio communication, checkpoints and roadblocks, establishing liaisons with local law enforcement and civilian organizations, and reacting to chemical and biological weapon incidents.

"When we first start training, you have your helmet on, face shield, shin pads, a plastic shield you hold in your arm, and you're placed in a wall" formation, Fealy said. "The key is to keep tight, so the shields are nice and tight together. With a riot-control line, nothing gets in. Then we ramp up the training a little bit. We try to break through the line. We're harassing, yelling, making it as realistic as possible but also keeping it safe."

Guard leadership has emphasized to its members since last spring's unrest that while Guard members are wearing the uniform, they are still part of the community. Since the unrest, trainers report that they have seen a particularly focused force.

"It's not personal — it's all business," Fealy said. "That's how we teach it. The protesters are doing their job. They have a right to do it. And we're doing our job. We're not going to stop them from protesting."

Since last year, Weege, the nursing student from Duluth, has been promoted to team leader. She emphasizes to her soldiers that their goal is encouraging protests to stay peaceful. Her experience from May and June — the fear she felt, the raw emotions she faced — has stuck with her. Doing things like blocking off a road so firefighters could put out a gas station fire made her feel like she made a small difference during a chaotic time.

"You can also see how much emotion, the frustration and sadness [the protesters are] seeing, and you understand where they are coming from," Weege said. "But you're very much like, 'OK, let's do what I need to do.' We're there for their safety. We want them to be able to safely protest."

Reid Forgrave • 612-673-4647