Operation Lone Star: Streak of National Guard suicides sparks criticism of Texas border mission

A spate of suicides among Texas National Guards deployed as part of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” has raised concerns, with some servicemen reporting inconsistent salaries, denied leave and unsafe Covid-19 protocols.

A scathing report released by the Army time‘s Davis Winkie has discovered 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 for a “job for life” with one of the largest health insurance companies in the country before being hired to join the troop formation. from the governor to the border.

With no way of knowing how long the mission would last – and having just quit another job after being deployed to help with flood cleanup efforts in Louisiana – Mr. Cortez has requested a hardship release from the mission so that he can accept the job.

“I have been waiting for this job and am about to be hired,” Mr. Cortez, 21, wrote in his application. “I missed my first opportunity in September when I had to participate in the Louisiana Flood Mission. … I cannot miss this opportunity as it is my last opportunity for this job for life.

While the commander of Mr. Cortez’s company recommended that his release be approved, his battalion and brigade commander, Col. Robert Crockem, denied the request.

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 guards at the mission died by suicide between October and December. Sgt Jose De Hoyos, 1st Sgt John Crutcher and 1st Lt Charles Williams all died of what appear to be suicides, although some of these cases are still being investigated.

Earlier this month, another National Guard at the mission died after accidentally shooting himself in an alcohol-related incident, and another soldier survived a suicide attempt during the week between Christmas and New Years Day, according to the post.

The suicides – along with whistleblowers among guards on social media – have raised concerns about the conditions and purpose of the ongoing border operation.

Talk with the Army timeRetired Command Sergeant Major Jason Featherston, a former enlisted chief of the Texas Army National Guard from May 2020 until his retirement in late November, said the mission suffered from a lack of purpose and d ‘a lack of focus on the needs of individual guards.

“The [Texas Military Department]leadership has lost focus on what matters most, and that is the soldier, ”he told the publication. “Their inability to focus on the individual needs of the soldiers cost many lives, and until they [focus]other tragedies will continue to occur.

A spokesperson for the Texas Military Department said it takes staff mental health issues seriously, offering confidential 24-hour counseling lines and a “large team of licensed independent therapists” who provide free services to patients. members of the department.

Operation Lone Star began on March 6, 2021 and was politically motivated from the start. The purpose of the mission was ostensibly to deter illegal immigration to Texas, but critics say Mr Abbott launched the campaign as a way to appear strong before a main challenge from far-right challenger Allan West, a former officer of the army who was forced to leave the army. after torturing an Iraqi detainee in 2003.

Mr. Featherston said Mr. Abbott’s political motives for the mission were “well known” among Texas military personnel.

In the press release announcing the mission, Mr Abbott’s office said that “the crisis at our southern border continues to escalate due to the policies of the Biden administration refusing to secure the border and calling on the illegal immigration”. He goes on to say that he “will increase the resources and the forces of order necessary to face this crisis”.

This push has come at a cost. Initially, the mission was led by a group of 1,000 volunteers, but on September 20, Mr. Abbott ordered the activation of another 1,500 soldiers. The guards asked to take part in the mission had in some cases only two weeks to put their affairs in order before being taken to the southern border for an indefinite period. On October 7, Abbott activated 2,500 additional guards, bringing the total border force to 5,000.

Pay problems further complicate life for guards. When the largely Republican Texas legislature demanded a budget cut, the Texas National Guard cut its tuition assistance benefits, leaving some guards enrolled in reimbursement-free education programs they relied on to fund their education.

On top of that, the state’s human resource system was overwhelmed by the flood of newly activated guards who needed to be paid, resulting in delays and inconsistent payments for many guards.

The Texas Military Department said the problem had largely been resolved, but at least two guards told the Army time that they were still receiving inconsistent payments with no pay stubs that they could use to prove discrepancies.

Guards speaking with the Army time also claimed that many of their hardship requests – which would allow them to return home after the mission – were denied. For guards with family obligations or jobs they rely on to provide for their loved ones, an unclear mission at the border for an indefinite period was untenable, but they failed to convince their commanders to allow them. from.

One guard’s account, shared by Mr Abbott’s political rival Mr West, includes claims that his troops have been told “countless times” that anyone who does not show up for work will be arrested.

The rejection of leave requests is particularly frustrating for the guards as many said they did very little during their border assignment.

“They don’t do bullshit at the border,” Mr Featherston told the Army time. The statement contradicts the praise given to the mission by Mr. Abbott, who praised the human trafficking prevention mission on Tuesday.

“During the last legislative session, I signed 15 bills cracking down on human trafficking. I launched #OperationLoneStar to secure the border and end this modern day slavery,” he said. wrote in a Tweet on Tuesday, not to mention that some of the guards involved had themselves worked for an inconsistent or delayed payment.

Despite the praise, there is little evidence that the guards are doing anything at the border.

“I have not heard any confirmed report that an NG soldier was directly involved in law enforcement operations at the border,” said a staff officer. Army time noted. “I saw the press releases. “

Guards also complained about conditions at the border, many living in local hotel rooms or shacks built in converted truck trailers, where several guards are forced to be in constant close contact and poorly ventilated each other. with others during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Featherston also claimed there was a lack of cold weather gear, bulletproof vests, first aid kits and portable toilets for troops stationed at the border.

As more and more reports from the guards become public, politicians have rushed into the issue, criticizing the mission from both left and right.

Mr. West has publicly called on Major General Tracy Norris, appointed by Mr. Abbott and adjutant general of the Texas National Guard, to step down due to the border situation.

Democrat Beto O’Rourke also intervened, publishing two editorials accusing Mr Abbott of using the guards as political pawns.

“Given all of this, it shouldn’t surprise us that Force is going through a serious mental health crisis. It’s a slap in the face for the men and women who have signed up to serve this state and country in uniform,” did he declare. wrote. “And to make matters worse, it seems like they’re being told that what they’re doing at the border is more political theater than anything else.”

The Texas Military Department sent a message to all guards following the publication of the Army time story telling them that while they are not prohibited from speaking with reporters, “the fastest way to resolve any grievance is through your chain of command.”

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