A string of suicides among Texas National Guardsmen deployed on Republican Governor Greg Abbott's "Operation Lone Star" has raised concerns, with some military members reporting inconsistent pay, denied leave time and dangerous Covid-19 protocols.
A scathing report published by the Army Times's Davis Winkie found that four National Guardsmen have died by suicide - all by self-inflicted gunshot - since Mr Abbott launched the patrol mission along the state's border with Mexico, dubbed "Operation Lone Star”.
The report tells the story of Private First Class Joshua Cortez, who was preparing to take a "lifetime job" with one of the nation's largest health insurance companies before he was tapped to join the governor's troop buildup at the border.
Without any way of knowing how long the mission would last - and having just passed up another job after being deployed to help with flood clean-up efforts in Louisiana - Mr Cortez requested a hardship release from the mission so that he could accept the job.
“I’ve been waiting for this job and I’m on my way to getting hired,” Mr Cortez, 21, wrote in his request. “I missed my first opportunity in September when I had to go on the flood mission in Louisiana. … I can not miss this opportunity because it is my last opportunity for this lifetime job.”
While Mr Cortez's company commander recommended he be approved for release, his battalion commander and brigade commander, Colonel Robert Crockem, denied the request.
Sometime over the next 36 hours, Mr Cortez drove to a parking lot in San Antonio and shot himself in the head.
At least three other National Guardsmen on the mission have died from suicide between October and December. Sgt Jose De Hoyos, 1st Sgt John Crutcher, and 1st Lt Charles Williams all died from what appear to be suicides, though investigations are still pending in some of those cases.
Earlier this month, another National Guardsman on the mission died after he accidentally shot himself in an alcohol related incident, and another soldier survived an attempted suicide during the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, according to the publication.
The suicides - as well as whistleblowers among the guardsmen on social media - have raised concerns over the conditions and the purpose of the ongoing operation at the border.
Speaking with the Army Times, retired Command Sergeant Major Jason Featherston, formerly the Texas Army national Guard's senior enlisted leader from May 2020 until his retirement at the end of November, said that the mission was suffering from a lack of purpose and a lack of focus on the needs of individual guardsmen.
“The [Texas Military Department]’s leadership has lost focus on what matters most, and that’s the soldier,” he told the publication. “Their inability to focus on the individual soldiers’ needs has cost several lives, and until they [focus], more tragedies will continue to happen.”
A spokesman for the Texas Military Department said it takes personnel mental health issues seriously, offering 24-hour confidential counseling lines and a "large team of independently licensed therapists" that offer free services to department members.
Operation Lone Star began on 6 March, 2021, and from its outset was driven by political motivations. The mission’s purpose was ostensibly to deter illegal immigration into Texas, but critics claim Mr Abbott launched the campaign as a way to appear strong ahead of a primary challenge from far-right challenger Allan West, a former Army officer who was forced out of the military after he tortured an Iraqi detainee in 2003.
Mr Featherston claimed that Mr Abbott's political motivations for the mission were "common knowledge" among Texas military personnel.
In the press release announcing the mission, Mr Abbott's office says the "crisis at our southern border continues to escalate because of Biden Administration policies that refuse to secure the border and invite illegal immigration." It goes on to say it will "surge the resources and law enforcement personnel needed to confront this crisis”.
That surge came at a cost. Initially the mission was driven by a group of 1,000 volunteers, but on 20 September Mr Abbott ordered another 1,500 troops activated. Guardsmen tapped to participate in the mission in some cases had as little as two weeks to get their affairs in order before being whisked to the southern border for an indeterminate amount of time. On 7 October, Mr Abbott activated an additional 2,500 guardsmen, raising the total border force to 5,000 individuals.
Further complicating the guardsmen's lives are pay issues. When Texas's largely Republican legislature demanded a budget cut, the Texas National Guard slashed its tuition assistance benefits, leaving some guardsmen enrolled in educational programs without reimbursement payments they were relying on to fund their schooling.
On top of that, the state's human resources system was overwhelmed by the flood of newly activated guardsmen who needed paid, resulting in delays and inconsistent payments for many guardsmen.
The Texas Military Department said that issue has largely been sorted, but at least two guardsmen told the Army Times that they still were receiving inconsistent payments without paystubs they can use to prove discrepancies.
Guardsmen speaking with the Army Times also claimed that many of their hardship requests - which would allow them to return home from the mission - were denied. For guardsmen with family obligations or jobs they rely on to support their loved ones, an unclear mission at the border for an indeterminate amount of time was untenable, but they were unable to convince their commanders to allow them leave.
One guardsman's account, shared by Mr Abbott's political rival, Mr West, includes claims that his troops have been told "countless times" that anyone who failed to report for duty would be arrested.
The rejection of leave requests is especially frustrating for guardsmen as many have reported doing very little during their mission at the border.
"They're not doing s*** on the border," Mr Featherston told the Army Times. That statement contradicts the praise heaped onto the mission by Mr Abbott, who Tuesday lauded the mission for preventing human trafficking.
"This past legislative session, I signed 15 bills into law cracking down on human trafficking. I launched #OperationLoneStar to secure the border & put an end to this modern-day slavery," he wrote in a Tweet on Tuesday, not mentioning that some of the guardsmen involved had themselves been working for inconsistent or delayed payment.
Despite the praise, there is little evidence that the guardsmen are accomplishing anything at all at the border.
“I have not heard any confirmed report of any NG soldier being directly involved with law enforcement operations at the border,” a staff officer speaking with the Army Times said. “I’ve seen the PR releases.”
Guardsmen have also complained about the conditions at the border, with many having living out of local hotel rooms or in barrack built into converted truck trailers, where several guardsmen are forced into constant close, poorly ventilated contact with each other during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Featherston has also claimed that there is a lack of cold weather gear, body armour, first aid kits, and portable toilets for the troops stationed at the border.
As more reports from the guardsmen become public, political figures have flocked to the issue, criticising the mission from both the left and the right.
Mr West has publicly called for Major General Tracy Norris, who was appointed by Mr Abbott and serves as the adjutant general of the Texas National Guard, to resign due to the situation at the border.
Democrat Beto O'Rourke has also weighed in, publishing a pair of editorials accusing Mr Abbott of using the guardsmen as political pawns.
"Given all of this, it shouldn’t surprise us that the force is experiencing a serious mental health crisis. It’s a slap in the face to the men and women who’ve signed up to serve this state and country in uniform," he wrote. "And to make matters worse, it appears that they’re told what they’re doing on the border is more political theater than anything else."
The Texas Military Department sent a message to all guardsmen following the publication of the Army Times story telling them that while they are not barred from speaking with reporters, “the most expedient way to resolve any grievances is through your chain of command.”
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