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A Texas National Guard soldier assigned to the state’s mission at its border with Mexico, dubbed Operation Lone Star, accidentally shot and killed himself in an alcohol-related incident Saturday and another survived a suicide attempt during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, according to initial incident reports obtained by Army Times.
The morale crisis among troops at the border, many of whom are there via long-term unit-wide involuntary activations, led Joint Task Force Lone Star’s chaplains to initiate a force-wide “morale survey” Monday. Army Times previously reported a series of suicide deaths linked to the mission, whose soldiers are suffering from issues with living conditions and pay.
Approximately 10,000 members of the Texas National Guard and Texas State Guard, an official state militia, are either on the border or supporting the effort from other locations in the state, according to a November operations order obtained by Army Times.
The soldiers are supporting the Texas Department of Public Safety under the control of Gov. Greg Abbott, and Texas officials say they are in a state active duty status attempting to stem human and drug trafficking. Fiscal 2021 saw an all-time record level of Border Patrol apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border, too.
Texas Military Department officials did not immediately respond to questions submitted by Army Times on Monday evening. Operation Lone Star is a distinct state-run effort with no operational connection to the federally controlled National Guard task force on the border, which Army Times investigated in December.
The suicide attempt occurred on Dec. 28, according to documents obtained by Army Times. An infantry NCO assigned to one of JTF Lone Star’s subordinate task forces cut his wrists in his hotel room near McAllen, Texas. Four soldiers from his unit responded quickly enough to gain access to his room and slow the bleeding until paramedics arrived, the documents said, and the NCO is recovering.
But less than an hour after midnight on New Year’s Day, a junior enlisted soldier from the same mobilized unit — 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry — died off-duty at a friend’s house when he shot himself in the head with his personal weapon. The incident was alcohol-related, according to documents, and the McAllen Police Department determined that foul play was not involved.
Local authorities are investigating the McAllen shooting to definitively determine the soldier’s cause of death.
The morale survey initiated by the chaplains two days later, on Monday, asks each of the soldiers assigned to JTF Lone Star to rate their “motivation” on a scale of 1-10, according to screenshots of its questions. The survey asks troops who report low motivation why that’s the case and directs them towards spiritual and mental health resources.
Hardships on the mission
In recent weeks, news reports and former senior Texas National Guard personnel have focused attention on the conditions affecting the morale of soldiers deployed to the border with JTF Lone Star.
When the mission expanded last year from a small volunteer effort to a mass mobilization, issues with hardship requests and rapid deployment notices left many soldiers struggling after being asked to drop their civilian lives for an extended period of time. In some cases, troops were given only days’ notice.
Texas leaders ordered units to issue arrest warrants for troops who don’t report or who go AWOL from the mission, according to documents. Units have obtained a handful of warrants thus far, though it’s unclear how many soldiers and airmen have been arrested.
Systemic pay issues have impacted the troops there, as well, due to the massive influx of Guard troops onto the state payroll. For human resources purposes, they are temporary state employees — meaning that the increase in troops on the mission overwhelmed the systems.
And from a benefits perspective, long-term state active duty orders do not provide federal education benefits, Veterans Affairs disability coverage or credit towards the troops’ federal National Guard retirements. The Texas Military Department also recently slashed state tuition assistance benefits for its troops by 54%, retroactive to the beginning of the fall 2021 semester.
The former top NCO in the Texas Army National Guard, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, posted a video to Twitter depicting the cramped living quarters on the mission’s base camps, which are converted RV and semi truck trailers.
Featherston has also spoken out about a purported lack of cold weather equipment, body armor, first aid kits and even portable toilets for the troops there.
The majority of the troops along the border have a repetitive daily task: manning observation posts along the Rio Grande, looking for groups of migrants and then calling state troopers or Border Patrol to interdict and apprehend them. Some Guardsmen are actively participating in arresting migrants for trespassing, which is allowed because more than 100 landowners have authorized the state to do so, but the practice does not appear to be widespread.
Critics of the mission have argued there are more troops along the border than necessary, accusing Gov. Greg Abbott of sending them there in a political posturing effort against more conservative rivals challenging him in the March Republican gubernatorial primary. Advocates of the mission, however, argue that the unprecedented level of illegal crossings necessitates drastic action.
But politicians of all ideological bents are criticizing the turn Operation Lone Star has taken in recent months.
One of Abbott’s fiercest conservative rivals, retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West, who was forced to leave the Army after torturing an Iraqi detainee in 2003, called on the Texas Guard’s top general to resign or be fired in a Tuesday afternoon press conference. West, who served as a member of Florida’s U.S. House delegation after the Tea Party wave in 2010, is the former chair of the Texas Republican Party.
“Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris: if you have any honor, integrity or character whatsoever, you should immediately submit your resignation,” West said. “If not... [Abbott] should relieve [her] of command and replace her with Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis,” who is currently leading JTF Lone Star.
The frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Beto O’Rourke, also sharply criticized Abbott in a pair of opinion articles written in the wake of Army Times’ reporting on the topic.
“This devastating string of suicides must serve as a wake-up call to the way that our Guard members are being treated at the border,” said O’Rourke in the Houston Chronicle. “The warning signs have been there from the beginning.”
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army, specializing in accountability reporting, personnel issues and military justice. He joined Military Times in 2020. Davis studied history at Vanderbilt University and UNC-Chapel Hill, writing a master's thesis about how the Cold War-era Defense Department influenced Hollywood's WWII movies.