COVID outbreak. Suicides. Shoddy living conditions. Texas National Guard troops voice border mission mistreatment.

·8 min read

AUSTIN, Texas — Soldiers sleeping in tractor-trailers. Erratic pay. Rampant COVID-19 spread. Suicides.

Members of the Texas National Guard patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border under Operation Lone Star, Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to stem the flow of undocumented migrants, have voiced a flurry of complaints about their ongoing mission there.

Abbott and supporters say he deployed the troops last year to protect Texas from a rising tide of human smuggling and drug trafficking.

But critics of the operation contend that Abbott, a Republican, deployed the servicemembers as a political move in the run-up to his reelection campaign in this year and the operation – a mandatory mission of more than 10,000 personnel to help enforce the border – may not be constitutional. Soldiers on the ground have complained of poor planning, lack of proper equipment and deployments that have stretched into months.

At least four soldiers connected to the mission have taken their own lives since October, sparking protests from U.S. Congressional leaders. Last week, 13 Democratic members of the Texas congressional delegation called for an inspector general investigation into Operation Lone Star.

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, brought up the soldiers' complaints to National Guard top leaders at a House subcommittee hearing.

WHAT IS OPERATION LONE STAR? Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border crackdown violates US Constitution, defense lawyers say

National Guard members patrol near an unfinished section of border wall on Nov. 18, 2021, in La Joya, Texas. More than 10,000 Guard members have been deployed to the border to assist in border enforcement.
National Guard members patrol near an unfinished section of border wall on Nov. 18, 2021, in La Joya, Texas. More than 10,000 Guard members have been deployed to the border to assist in border enforcement.

"What Operation Lone Star represents to me is an absolute abuse of a precious commodity, our National Guard, an abuse of people who stand ready to give up their lives to help the nation," Escobar said in an interview with USA TODAY, "not to help a politician win reelection."

Abbott began ordering troops to the border last year, as the number of asylum-seekers crossing into Texas reached historic highs. The mission began with a few hundred troops on a volunteer basis but soon grew into the thousands, and more troops were mandated to deploy.

The operation cost $23 million in 2021 and is expected to soar to $2 billion this year, according to the Texas Military Department.

So far, the mission has resulted in encounters with more than 189,000 migrants, of whom over 10,300 were arrested for committing border-related crimes. Over 222 million lethal doses of fentanyl was seized, according to a statement by Nan Tolson, an Abbott spokeswoman.

'A poorly planned operation'

Last fiscal year, Border Patrol agents encountered a record 1.7 million migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border — more than any other year since the agency began tracking the numbers in 1960. Democrats have criticized President Joe Biden's administration for not being able to reverse some of former President Donald Trump's stricter immigration policies, while Republicans criticize him for not stopping enough undocumented immigrants.

"Texas will do whatever it takes to secure our southern border and protect Texans in President Biden’s absence, because nothing is more important than the safety and security of our communities,” Tolson said in the statement.

But Guard members on the mission have complained that they were not given adequate time to deploy, that their pay while on the border has been erratic and of shoddy living conditions. USA TODAY spoke to several soldiers currently on the mission or who recently left the National Guard and reviewed documents verifying their stories. Many of the soldiers still in Operation Lone Star asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from National Guard leadership.

USA TODAY ANALYSIS: Proposed Texas-Mexico border wall draped in legal, ethical concerns and politics

National Guard members patrol near an unfinished section of border wall on Nov. 18, 2021 in La Joya, Texas. More than 10,000 Guard members have been deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border to assist in border enforcement as part of Operation Lone Star.
National Guard members patrol near an unfinished section of border wall on Nov. 18, 2021 in La Joya, Texas. More than 10,000 Guard members have been deployed to the U.S.-Mexico border to assist in border enforcement as part of Operation Lone Star.

Jason Featherston, a former senior enlisted advisor for the Texas Army National Guard who retired in November, said Guard members on the border are forced to sleep in cramped, retrofitted trailers and many don't have proper winter gear as the weather turned cold. Some soldiers sleep in their cars to avoid cramming into trailers and catching the coronavirus, he said. COVID-19 outbreaks have been common, he added.

"This was a poorly planned operation," Featherston said. "It was very hastily done."

One soldier, who asked that his name not be published, said there are no bathrooms at the observation posts he and other soldiers man, so they end up defecating on the side of the highway. The soldiers also lack basic equipment, such as binoculars, and end up parked on the side of the road for hours.

"What you get is soldiers who sit in the Humvee all day and just stare out into México," the soldier said.

At a virtual town hall meeting earlier this month led by 36th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Charles Aris, some National Guard company commanders voiced concern that the mission was taking an emotional toll on their soldiers.

"I’m drastically concerned with the mental health aspects that I see within my formation," one commander said in a recording of the meeting. "I know that [Operation Lone Star] has really been impacting a lot of people."

'YOU ARE FREE, YOU ARE HOME': Haitian migrants to be offered residency, permits by Mexico

A U.S. National Guard member keeps watch while on a border patrol operation on Nov. 18, 2021, in La Joya, Texas. Guard members deployed to Operation Lone Star along the border have complained of shoddy housing, lack of equipment and erratic pay.
A U.S. National Guard member keeps watch while on a border patrol operation on Nov. 18, 2021, in La Joya, Texas. Guard members deployed to Operation Lone Star along the border have complained of shoddy housing, lack of equipment and erratic pay.

Hundreds of Guard members on the border have applied for "hardship requests," which allow them to leave their missions and return to their civilian lives, but many of those were denied, according to a review of hardship requests by USA TODAY.

On Oct. 29, Joshua Cortez, a specialist with the Texas National Guard, tried delaying his deployment to Operation Lone Star by filing a hardship request to attend a job interview in San Antonio with a major health insurance company. His company commander approved the request.

But later, the Guard's battalion commander and brigade commander denied it, writing, "Soldier can deploy. If offered a job, then Soldier can be given time for training," according to the request document. The refusal was dated Nov. 4.

Two days later, Cortez drove to the parking lot of a San Antonio office park and killed himself with a gunshot, according to Texas Military Department records.

At least three other soldiers connected to Operation Lone Star have killed themselves since October, Featherston said. The strain of putting part-time soldiers in long-term missions is exacting an emotional toll, he said.

"They joined the guard to help out," Featherston said, "but they didn’t join for it to be a full-time job."

In a statement, Col. Rita Holton, a spokeswoman for the Texas Military Department, said Guard officials have granted around 75% of the more than 900 hardship requests received by the department. She said, to date, 75% of pay discrepancies for troops in Operation Lone Star have been resolved and commanders in the field have identified and are working to resolve other issues, such as lack of portable toilets and improving living conditions.

"Texas communities are safer and numerous citizens, community officials and law enforcement officers have voiced their appreciation to our service members for the significant impact they are making," Holton said in the statement.

'Absolutely unacceptable for our National Guard'

Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, National Guard units have been deployed to one-year and 18-month missions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association of the United States, a Washington-based advocacy group.

But those deployments are federal missions, under the president's orders, and Guard members get paid via a federal pay scale, he said. State missions, ordered by governors, usually involve helping out in catastrophes, such as hurricanes or wildfires, and often involve less troops and much less time on mission, Goheen said.

Governors have deployed Guard members for COVID-19 responses, and past Texas governors have ordered troops to the border, though not at this scale, Goheen said.

Aris said in the virtual town hall that Operation Lone Star would likely last two years. Featherston said a mission of that length isn't viable for the Guard's 24,000 members.

"We should have a presence on the border, but not the 10,000," Featherston said. "10,000 is not sustainable for the Texas National Guard. There are not enough people."

'INSIDIOUS ROT': Congressional panel puts National Guard on notice over sexual assault problem

Abbott has the right to order National Guard troops to the border, Goheen said. But reports of suicides and substandard living conditions with Operation Lone Star have caught the attention of association leadership.

"Our mind is open about this mission," Goheen said. "The stories have our attention, but we don’t have a clear picture right now."

Kristin Etter, an attorney with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, testified in a Travis County District Court hearing last week that her organization has represented 751 clients ensnared in Operation Lone Star.

Of those, 99% have been charged with criminal trespass – what is normally a Class C or B misdemeanor that warrants little to no jail sentence.

A judge at the hearing dismissed a man's trespassing charges who had been arrested and detained under Operation Lone Star, ruling it violated the U.S. Constitution by sending state-ordered troops to enforce federal immigration laws. The state said it plans to appeal the ruling.

Escobar said she is exploring the possibility of passing a law that would give greater federal oversight to National Guard missions.

"This is absolutely unacceptable for our National Guard and absolutely unacceptable to our nation," she said. "It diminishes our readiness."

Follow Rick Jervis and Celina Tebor on Twitter @MrRJervis and @CelinaTebor.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Border mission involving Guard troops plagued by complaints, suicides

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting