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Reports that Texas National Guard soldiers deployed to Governor Greg Abbott’s much-vaunted border security mission are facing wage delays and poor working conditions – and that some have recently died by suicide – raise concern state legislators.
Over the past three months, the Army Times has chronicled the usual pay issues for mission soldiers and reported on mission-related soldier suicides. On Tuesday, Allen West, a GOP gubernatorial candidate, criticized Abbott’s handling of the mission and called on the top Texas Military Department official to step down. West, a former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, said soldiers also contacted him about the unsanitary conditions in the camps and the lack of proper equipment.
In a written statement attributed to public affairs staff at the Texas Military Department, the department said only two of the four soldiers who died by suicide reported by the Army Times in December “were on orders to support Operation Lone Star.” The ministry did not specify which soldiers were not on order.
A soldier whose death was reported by the Army Times has been denied parole, according to the publication. Another was on exemption from subjugation upon his death, the Army Times reported.
“It would be a serious assumption to link these unfortunate incidents to the OLS mission because there are many variables that lead to suicide,” said the department’s statement.
“One suicide in our ranks is one too many, and we mourn all those left behind. In such complex situations, a person’s decision to take this desperate step is again the result of many factors.” , indicates the press release. “The Texas Military Department is proud of the robust set of services available to help service members cope with personal challenges free of charge. Services include a Resiliency and Substance Abuse Prevention Program, 24/7 Behavioral Health Care Provider, Chaplain, and Medical Professional Physician who are in each OLS working group.
Earlier this week, Brandon Jones, a spokesperson for the ministry, addressed other concerns about missing wages and proper equipment revealed by media. He said all members of the service are expected to receive detailed paychecks and pay stubs starting Tuesday. He also said the department had been made aware of unsanitary conditions in some places that did not have portable toilets, but that “the extent of the challenge is not great.” He said the first wave of staff may have faced “dire conditions with limited resources,” but the infrastructure is being put in place over time and the department is working to resolve the issue.
Operation Lone Star began in March, when Abbott announced he would deploy more resources from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard to the Texas-Mexico border. The rapidly mounted border security operation aims to stem a wave of crossings at the state’s southern border, with many migrants fleeing countries torn by a combination of violence, political turmoil and economic crisis.
Since the initiative was announced, Abbott, who is running for re-election this year, has repeatedly blamed President Joe Biden’s less strict immigration stance for a surge in the number of migrants seeking entry to the United States.
Last year, the Legislature allocated almost $ 3 billion for border security. In a special session last summer, lawmakers committed $ 311 million to the Texas Military Department to send an additional 1,800 Texas National Guard troops to the border, bringing the total to 2,500. In November, Abbott’s office boasted that 10,000 troops had been deployed for Operation Lone Star.
But State Senator César Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso who served in the Navy, said he was concerned that the soldiers had not received hardship releases and were being involuntarily activated after being served in other COVID-19 related missions, starting in 2020.
“Most of these people have already served or have agreed to serve part-time. But these deployments with both Operation Lone Star and COVID – these guys and girls are out there for three [consecutive] years, “he said.” That’s not what they signed up for. If they wanted to do this, they would have gone on active duty. “
Blanco also said he was concerned about the large pay gap between being on active duty in the state on a state-ordered mission and a federal mission. He also said he was concerned about the impact of the length of deployments on the retirement benefits and health insurance status of soldiers.
“These are the questions we ask, and I think some of those things the legislature needs to address in the next legislative session,” he said. “In the meantime, these are things that can be dealt with by House, Senate, and Governor leadership, as well as committee members overseeing the Texas Military Department.”
The respective House and Senate leaders, Speaker Dade Phelan and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, did not respond to requests for comment.
Renae Eze, spokesperson for Abbott, said this week that the governor’s office continues to “work with department heads to ensure that everyone who is deployed in Texas and overseas has the support they need. need to keep moving forward and serving our great state and our nation ”.
Abbott launched attacks on his management of the border by fellow Republicans challenging him during the GOP primary on March 1. This includes West, who retired from the military after being investigated in 2003 for using inappropriate methods to force information on an Iraqi detainee. And Abbott’s announcement last year that Texas would build its own border wall came after main opponent Don Huffines kicked off his campaign by offering it.
The Texas Military Department has warned that some of the soldier deaths reported by the Army Times are still under investigation, but a spokesperson told the outlet: “The loss of any serviceman is a tragedy and mitigates the losses by enforcing security protocols and securing resources that promote the overall health of the force is something the Texas Military Department takes seriously. “
State Senator Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said Texas National Guard soldiers are at the border due to the federal government’s failure to curb the increase in immigration and qu ‘they deserve state support.
“Any allegation of inadequate resources or working conditions should be taken very seriously, and as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and Border Security, we are in direct contact with the Texas Military Department to ensure that concerns raised are swiftly and fully addressed so that our heroes at the border know without a doubt that Texas has its back, ”Hancock said in a statement.
State Representative Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, said he was concerned about information released at the end of December on the suicides of soldiers linked to the mission and contacted Major General Tracy Norris, the top chief member of the Texas National Guard. Raymond heads the House Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee, which oversees the military department.
“I want to make sure that our caretakers are taken care of in terms of health, in terms of the 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 dealing with the issues related to soldiers’ pay.
Raymond said he was monitoring the situation and would convene a legislative hearing if more needed to be done. But he said he trusted Norris’ leadership.
“General Norris is a good leader and if there are problems she will fix them,” he said.
Jones, the spokesperson for the military department, also said that the accommodation of soldiers on mission is “transforming into the long-term deployment living conditions” that soldiers have experienced on overseas deployments. .
“The austere conditions are the result of the increase in the number of employees from 1,200 in June 2021 to around 10,000 in five months,” he said in an email.
The ministry disputed allegations that its soldiers lacked proper equipment during the mission.
“Every member of the Texas National Guard Service who occupies a security point on the Texas-Mexico border is equipped with the appropriate protective equipment and the appropriate amount of ammunition,” Jones said.
Blanco, the Democrat of El Paso, said he also contacted the Texas Military Department for more information after articles in the Army Times about the suicides of soldiers.
“It’s tragic that we have lost four soldiers,” Blanco said. “We need to make sure the Texas Military Department deploys mental health services to those areas to make sure these guards are okay.”