‘We’re Basically Mall Cops’: Inside a Border Mission That Feels Endless

‘We’re Basically Mall Cops’: Inside a Border Mission That Feels Endless

MCALLEN, Texas — After thousands of migrants crossed into Del Rio, Texas, last year and overwhelmed the authorities, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered thousands of National Guard troops to the border, sharply expanding their role in a mission known as Operation Lone Star.

For most of those called up, the service was mandatory, came on short notice and went from a tour of a few months to a yearlong deployment for a mission that Mr. Abbott has said is necessary to deter illegal migration, human smuggling and drug trafficking.

But many ordered to the border have complained of poor planning, pay problems and a lack of basic equipment, like winter gear for the cold or stethoscopes for medics. There have been Covid outbreaks on hastily created bases, where dozens of soldiers crowd together in mobile quarters so tight that commanders call them “submarine trailers.”

Hundreds sought waivers, because of the mission’s uncertain length and the disruptions it would create for their families, and were denied. In some cases, arrest warrants were issued for those who failed to report for duty.

“This is just ridiculous, you’re playing with my life and my family’s life,” said Hugo Brito, a 20-year guard veteran who said he decided to retire because of the border activation.

The complaints have prompted more than a dozen Democratic members of Congress from Texas to call for an investigation of the border mission by the guard’s inspector general, and have drawn criticism from Mr. Abbott’s Republican primary challengers, including Allen West, a former Army officer and former chairman of the Texas Republican Party, and Beto O’Rourke, the most prominent Democratic candidate for governor.

Mr. Abbott has made his law-and-order approach to the border a centerpiece of his campaign, officially announcing his run for re-election this month in McAllen, a predominantly Hispanic border city that has had a large number of migrant crossings. His first television ad, sponsored by the National Border Patrol Council, began airing this week and highlighted the National Guard deployment.

“Texas had no choice but to step up and address this crisis in the wake of President Biden’s and congressional Democrats’ inaction,” Nan Tolson, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in response to questions about the troubled border mission. “Texas will do whatever it takes to secure our southern border and protect Texans in President Biden’s absence.”

The general in charge of the mission, Brig. General Monie R. Ulis, recently responded to guard members’ concerns about equipment, pay and planning with a letter, acknowledging that there were “still numerous pay issues” and that the lodging remained “austere.”

He said that after a record number of illegal crossings, Mr. Abbott had been “forced to declare a state of emergency,” which authorized the mobilization of the guard to support state police on the border. To date, he said, their presence had prevented drugs from crossing the border and helped alert the federal authorities to tens of thousands of illegal migrants.

The activation of the National Guard in Texas — some of whose roughly 24,000 members had been engaged in responding to the pandemic — is expected to cost the state $2 billion this year, a spokeswoman for the Texas Military Department said.

As part of the mission, guard members have created observation posts — usually consisting of soldiers with a Humvee — along the border, a presence meant to deter illegal crossings. They have also helped local officials and border agents with apprehensions.

Still, to many who are engaged in it, the mission has appeared ad hoc, ill-defined and politically motivated, according to interviews with 10 current and former guard members, a review of internal documents and a recording of a nearly two-hour virtual town hall, led by senior commanders last week, obtained by The Times.

“We’re having to build in-flight,” Maj. Gen. Charles Aris said during the town hall with commanders and sergeants, and confirmed by text message. “I’m somewhat hopeful that maybe in November that we’ll have gotten a handle on this and it could downsize, and maybe before. But right now I’m not planning on it.”

A recent morale survey of Texas Guard members assigned to Operation Lone Star, conducted via SurveyMonkey, surfaced concerns about delayed or incorrect pay and poor housing, as well as doubts about the purpose of their deployments.

Even for veteran soldiers, including those with overseas military experience, the forced and rapid deployment has appeared at odds with the nature of the work.

“All we’re doing is standing down here,” said one active member whose job is to operate a fixed post near Brownsville. “We don’t even have the equipment to detain anyone, cuffs or anything like that.” Like others currently serving, he requested anonymity to avoid possible discipline for speaking out.

He added: “If someone comes up, we ask them to stop and wait, we call Border Patrol. If someone runs, we call Border Patrol. We’re basically mall cops on the border.”

The U.S. Border Patrol has been overwhelmed by the number of crossings, more than 1.7 million across the Southwest borders last year, with a critical point coming in mid-September, when thousands of migrants huddled under the international bridge in Del Rio, Texas.

Mr. Abbott has faced enormous political pressure to respond.

According to state documents, Mr. Abbott in September requested that 1,500 troops join the 500 or so who had already been deployed to the border. Later that same week, Tucker Carlson began attacking Mr. Abbott on his Fox News show, which is popular with conservatives, for not sending more National Guard troops, and in subsequent days invited Mr. Abbott’s Republican challengers onto his show to do the same.

Shortly after, Mr. Abbott requested that another 2,500 troops from the National Guard be sent to the border in October. The governor then appeared on Mr. Carlson’s show that month for the first time and said that 6,500 guard members and state troopers were on the border.

But the Texas guard could not reach those numbers solely with volunteers. And so the mission became mandatory. And unlike long overseas federal deployments — where members are given months to prepare for their long absences with their civilian jobs and families — those called up had to report within weeks or, in some cases, a few days.

And the activation was set to last for months. More than 900 guard members — students, business owners, police officers, firefighters — applied for hardship waivers. A quarter were denied, according to the military department spokeswoman, Col. Rita M. Holton.

The governor has declined to say how long Texas would keep thousands of National Guard members along the border. “Part of what is going to happen going forward depends upon what the Biden administration does,” Mr. Abbott said during a news conference last week. “We want them to return as soon as possible but we are having to respond to the facts on the ground.”

General Aris said soldiers could expect to spend 365 days on the border mission, and that there would likely be two yearlong “turns.”

“Typically when you’re called out for state active duty, it’s for a short time, usually a few days or weeks,” said Jason Featherston, who retired from the Texas Army National Guard last year as its top enlisted member. “For this mission, if you had a warm pulse, they were sending you to the border. They didn’t care what your issues were.”

Mr. Featherston has been outspoken in his criticism, angered by state cuts to tuition assistance for the guard last year as billions were allocated for the border mission.

Mr. Featherston and a number of other soldiers said they also were disturbed by at least four recent suicides of guardsmen who had been called up for Operation Lone Star, though the reasons behind the suicides remained unclear. Suicides in the military represent a persistent crisis, with trauma and stress contributing to numbers that have climbed every year since 2001.

John Crutcher, a 45-year-old sergeant in the guard and a captain in the Dallas Fire Department who went by Kenny, had obtained permission to temporarily delay his service to care for his wife after an emergency surgery, their daughter and his brother-in-law, who has Down syndrome and lived with them.

Still, the pressure of balancing his family life and his role leading other soldiers in the guard weighed on him, his wife, Heather Seymour, said. “He was getting these photos from the border — here I’m guarding this R.V. park and that’s my mission,” she said. “None of it made sense to them, why it was all so important to leave their families and their jobs.”

With his temporary waiver set to eventually expire, Ms. Seymour said her husband grew increasingly agitated. He had struggled with alcohol and post-traumatic stress from his service overseas in places like Afghanistan and had sought help. The border mission added to his struggles, she said.

Another member who sought a waiver from the mission, Joshua R. Cortez, was found dead in his car from a self-inflicted gunshot wound two days after his waiver was denied, records show.

“As the commander in chief of our troops in the state of Texas, the life of every one of them is significant,” Mr. Abbott said when asked during a news conference last week about the suicides, which were first reported by Army Times. “That said, we need to understand the larger context,” he added, providing statistics on suicides among U.S. military soldiers.

Mr. Featherston said that the well-being of soldiers was being put at risk by the vagueness of the mission and its apparent lack of advanced planning.

“I believe we should be on the border, but you’ve got to give them a purpose,” Mr. Featherston said. “A lot of people think this is a publicity stunt. Why all of a sudden the big push?”

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