Texas National Guardsmen say protecting the border is a waste of time and resources

Del Rio, Texas (CNN) — Since Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott deployed thousands to the US-Mexico border, Democratic lawmakers and even some National Guardsmen have criticized the operation as overtly political and a waste of resources.

Last March, Abbott, who is running for re-election, launched the “Operation Lone Starciting a crisis on the southern border of the United States. The operation, which drew on the resources of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard, has grown to more than 10,000 service members.

The speed with which the operation was launched and its scope has fueled frustrations internally and among Guard veterans. Several members who are deployed as part of Operation Lone Star and who spoke to CNN described long hours with little to do, poor planning and a lack of mission, all of which they say is contributing to low morale among soldiers.

“As a military man, people know the term hurry up and wait. This is just the biggest hurry up and wait that I’ve ever been a part of, and there’s really no established thing, ‘hey, we’re doing this, or hey, go out and do this.’ we’re just sitting around doing nothing,” said a soldier.

Last year, several Republican governors across the country sent state agents to the US-Mexico bordergiving each an opportunity to emphasize their loyalty to former President Donald Trump while also criticizing the administration of President Joe Biden.

Abbott has been a vocal critic of the White House, attributing the surge of immigrants at the border to Biden’s immigration policies, though there were spikes during the Trump administration as well.

Here in Del Rio, authorities faced a wave of migrants last September that resulted in thousands of people, mainly Haitians, waiting to be processed under a bridge and requiring a flood of resources. Since that crisis, border arrests have remained high.

In December, the US Border Patrol arrested more than 33,000 migrants in the Del Rio sector, more than the previous month, according to the latest available datacompared to just under 9,200 in December 2020 and 3,000 in December 2019.

However, the National Guard generally plays a support role and notifies the US Border Patrol if they encounter migrants, so agents can pick them up. In Del Rio, Humvees are stationed along the border at observation points with soldiers assigned to monitor activity, which can vary by location.

“There are guys standing at our points doing nothing, so they don’t really see a mission. They just see this as just using us as political pawns for an election year,” the soldier said.

“I’ve seen a lot of soldiers down here break down. I’ve seen a lot of soldiers, like their attitudes have drastically changed,” the soldier added. “Morale has definitely been low and mental health has been declining.”

Other common complaints reported to CNN included cramped quarters leading to Covid-19 outbreaks among soldiers, late paychecks and a lack of proper equipment.

Empty of migrants, this is what the bridge looks like in Del Rio, Texas 0:48

Retired Command Sgt. Commander Jason Featherston, who was involved in the initial planning of the operation and retired last year, argued that he did not have to be this way.

“We want Soldiers to provide these specific sets of tasks there, and then have those tasks properly planned,” Featherston said. “And to be honest with you, if this was well planned, we wouldn’t be sending soldiers in there with the wrong equipment.”

Those concerns surfaced during a two-hour virtual town hall in mid-January, where senior commanders fielded questions from deployed units. Among the issues raised were soldiers trading equipment because there wasn’t enough for each person, insufficient tools, living conditions and failure to pay soldiers on time, according to audio obtained by CNN.

The Texas Military Department said it is working on the issues raised, equipment and living conditions and is following COVID-19 protocols. As of Wednesday, about 2.5% of service members assigned to the operation have been affected by Covid-19, according to the department.

“The mission of the Texas National Guard and DPS has been clear from the beginning: to deter and prevent immigrants from entering Texas illegally, including building barriers to accomplish those goals, and detaining and arresting those who violate immigration laws.” Texas,” Abbott spokeswoman Nan Tolson said in a statement.

But the list of problems has already taken its toll on deployed soldiers. “It made me lose faith in a lot of the things that I had faith in when it came to the military,” another soldier told CNN, citing frequently changing plans.

“My frustrations are mostly at the state level. The lack of planning, the general care of people on the ground,” echoed another soldier deployed to Operation Lone Star.

Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Martinez told CNN that the mere presence of authorities keeps residents of Del Rio, which is under their jurisdiction, safe.

“If their duty is to, you know, sit in a booth and make sure nobody crosses and if somebody crosses, call the Border Patrol, you know, so be it, I think it’s necessary,” Martinez said.

Shipping containers and High Mobility Multipurpose Vehicle military vehicles line the area near the Rio Grande River on November 19, 2021 in Eagle Pass, Texas. (Photo by SERGIO FLORES/AFP via Getty Images)

A large white tent has been set up in the parking lot in front of the sheriff’s office to serve as a processing center for immigrants arrested by state authorities for trespassing. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, more than 2,900 migrants have been arrested by state authorities for illegal trespassing as part of Operation Lone Star.

A key tactic of Abbott’s operation is arresting suspected undocumented immigrants for trespassing after crossing the border. CNN has previously reported that hundreds of migrants, through their attorneys and court documents, have claimed their constitutional rights are being violated under the effort Abbott spearheaded.

When asked about Operation Lone Star, a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesman said the agency has “no role or collaboration in any way with the US DPS.” Texas in Operation Lone Star”.

Texas civil rights groups filed a federal complaint of discrimination with the Department of Justice in December over Operation Lone Star, calling it “illegal,” “xenophobic,” and “racist.”

deaths and suicides

Border Patrol agents and members of the National Guard patrol the entrance of a checkpoint near the Del Rio International Bridge on September 22, 2021 in Del Rio, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Democratic members of Congress from Texas, along with some of their colleagues, have also previously raised issues about the operation with the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), arguing that the programs have led to violations of state law and constitutional due process rights. And in January, legislators urgedn the inspector general of the Texas Military Department to launch an investigation into the department’s actions related to Operation Lone Star.

Among the concerns listed by lawmakers was a series of deaths, first reported by the Army Times, related to the operation. There have been four deaths of service members who were assigned to Operation Lone Star, according to the Texas Military Department. Two were suicides and two were accidental discharges of firearms off mission.

This week, the Texas Military Department announced that uA Texas National Guard soldier was killed in an incident unrelated to the mission in the town of Brackettville, 30 miles from Del Rio.

The soldier, identified as a Texas Army National Guard Specialist. Dajuan Lester Townes, had been assigned to Operation Lone Star and died from the accidental discharge of a firearm. The incident is under investigation.

“We are deeply saddened by this loss,” Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, a senior general with the Texas Military Department, said in a statement. “We are focused on supporting the soldier’s family and are providing all available resources.”

For some of those who remain deployed, the deaths and the continued uncertainty regarding the mission are unsettling.

“When I signed up for the national guard, I signed up for a week and a month, two weeks a year. If there’s a natural disaster in the state, I’ll be there. If another state needs us for a natural disaster, I’ll be there. If I need to go on deployment to another country for a legitimate mission, I’ll be there,” one of the soldiers told CNN.

“A lot of Guardsmen, myself included, had to pack up our civilian lives and our civilian careers and put all of that on hold,” the soldier said.

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