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Texas lawmakers deplore mistreatment of National Guardsmen sent to border duty

Two men uniformed in fatigues stand near a military vehicle in front of a chain-link fence topped with razor wire.
Kaylee Greenlee Beal
/
for The Texas Tribune
Members of the Texas National Guard, seen here on Dec. 8, work 12- to 13-hour shifts guarding the Texas border wall, construction crews and materials near Del Rio. Thousands of National Guard troops were deployed to Del Rio after an increase in migration at the southern border.

For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 800-273-8255 or texting 741741.

Reports that Texas National Guard soldiers deployed to Gov. Greg Abbott's highly touted border security mission are experiencing pay delays and poor working conditions — and that some have recently died by suicide — are drawing concern from state lawmakers.

Over the past three months, the Army Times has chronicled habitual pay problems for soldiers on the mission and reported on suicides by soldiers tied to the mission. On Tuesday, Allen West, a GOP candidate for governor, criticized Abbott's handling of the mission and called on the Texas Military Department's top leader to resign. West, a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, said soldiers had also reached out to him about unsanitary conditions in camps and a lack of proper equipment.

In a written statement attributed to the Texas Military Department's public affairs staff, the department said only two of the four soldiers who died by suicide reported by the Army Times in December "were on orders in support of Operation Lone Star." The department did not specify which soldiers were not on orders.

One solider whose death was reported by the Army Times was denied a hardship release, according to the publication. Another was on temporary hardship waiver when he died, the Army Times reported.

"It would be a grave assumption to tie these unfortunate incidents to OLS mission as there are many variable which leads to suicide," the department's statement read.

"One suicide within our ranks is one too many, and we all grieve for those who are left behind. In such complex situations, a person’s decision to take this desperate measure is again, the result of numerous factors," the statement said. "The Texas Military Department takes pride in the robust set of services available to help service members cope with personal challenges free-of-charge. The services include a resiliency and substance abuse prevention program, 24/7 behavioral health provider, a chaplain and medical health professional which are located in every OLS task force."

Earlier this week, Brandon Jones, a spokesperson for the department, addressed other concerns about missing pay and proper equipment surfaced by media reports. He said all service members should be receiving paychecks and detailed pay stubs as of Tuesday. He also said the department was made aware of unsanitary conditions at some locations that did not have portable restrooms, but that the "scope of the challenge is not large." He said the first wave of personnel may have faced "austere conditions with limited resources" but the infrastructure is put into place over time and the department is working to address the issue.

Operation Lone Star began in March, when Abbott said he would deploy more resources from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard to the Texas-Mexico border. The rapidly assembled border security operation seeks to stem a surge of crossings at the state’s southern border, with many migrants fleeing countries torn by some combination of violence, political turmoil and economic crisis.

Since announcing the initiative, Abbott, who is running for reelection this year, has repeatedly blamed President Joe Biden's less stringent immigration stance for a sharp increase in migrants seeking entry into the U.S.

Last year, the Legislature appropriated nearly $3 billion for border security. In a special session this past summer, lawmakers devoted $311 million to the Texas Military Department to send an additional 1,800 Texas National Guard soldiers to the border, bringing the total to 2,500. By November, Abbott's office boasted that 10,000 troops had been deployed to Operation Lone Star.

But state Sen. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who served in the Navy, said he is concerned that soldiers were not being given hardship releases and were being activated involuntarily after having served on other missions related to COVID-19, beginning in 2020.

"Most of these folks are prior service or have agreed to serve part-time. But these deployments both with Operation Lone Star and COVID — these guys and gals are out there for three [consecutive] years," he said. "That’s not what they signed up for. If they wanted to do that, they would have gone active duty."

Blanco also said he was concerned by the large pay discrepancy between being on state active duty for a state-ordered mission and a federal mission. He also said he was concerned with how long deployments impacted soldiers' retirement benefits and health insurance status.

"These are the questions we’re asking, and I think some of these things the Legislature needs to address in the next legislative session," he said. "In the meantime, these are things that can be addressed by leadership in the House, Senate and the governor, as well as members of committee that have oversight over the Texas Military Department."

The respective leaders of the House and Senate, Speaker Dade Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, did not respond to requests for comment.

Renae Eze, an Abbott spokesperson, said this week the governor's office continues "working with service leaders to ensure all who are deployed in Texas and overseas have the support they need to keep forging ahead and serve our great state and our nation."

Abbott has fielded attacks about his handling of the border from fellow Republicans challenging him in the March 1 GOP primary. That includes West, who retired from the military after he was investigated in 2003 for using improper methods to force information out of an Iraqi detainee. And Abbott’s announcement last year that Texas would build its own border wall came after primary opponent Don Huffines launched his campaign proposing that.

The Texas Military Department cautioned that some of the soldier deaths reported by the Army Times are still open investigations, but a spokesperson told the news outlet: “The loss of any service member is a tragedy and mitigating loss through enforcing safety protocols and ensuring resources that promote the total health of the force is something the Texas Military Department takes seriously.”

State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said soldiers in the Texas National Guard are on the border because of the federal government's failure to curb an increase in immigration and they deserve the support of the state.

“Any allegations of inadequate resources or working conditions must be taken very seriously, and as Chairman of the Senate Veteran Affairs & Border Security Committee, we are in direct contact with the Texas Military Department to ensure concerns raised are quickly and fully addressed so our heroes on the border know without a doubt that Texas has their backs," Hancock said in a statement.

State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, said he was concerned by reports in late December about suicides by soldiers tied to the mission and reached out to Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, the Texas National Guard's top military leader. Raymond leads the House Defense and Veterans' Affairs Committee, which oversees the military department.

"I want to make sure that our guard are taken care of in terms of their health, in terms of their economic situation," Raymond said.

Norris told him that the Texas Military Department provides resources for mental health, Raymond said. He said he was also told that the department was fixing issues related to pay for soldiers.

Raymond said he was monitoring the situation and would call a legislative hearing if more needed to be done. But he said he trusted Norris' leadership.

"Gen. Norris is a good leader and if there are any issues, she’ll get them fixed," he said.

Jones, the military department spokesperson, also said that lodging for soldiers on the mission is "in the process of being transformed to long-term deployment living conditions" that soldiers have experienced during overseas deployments.

"Austere conditions are a result of increasing the number of personnel from 1200 in June 2021 to approximately 10k in five months," he said in an email.

The department disputed claims that its soldiers were missing proper equipment on the mission.

"Every Texas National Guard Service Member manning a security point on the Texas-Mexico border is equipped with the proper protective equipment and the appropriate amount of ammunition," Jones said.

Blanco, the El Paso Democrat, said he had also reached out to the Texas Military Department for more information after reports in the Army Times about soldiers' suicides.

"It's tragic that we've lost four soldiers," Blanco said. "We need to make sure that the Texas Military Department is deploying mental health services to these regions to ensure that these guardsmen are doing OK."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/01/07/texas-border-national-guard-pay-suicides/.