Last March, Abbott, who’s up for reelection, launched “Operation Lone Star,” citing a crisis at the US southern border. The operation — which leaned on resources from Texas Department of Public Safety and Texas National Guard — has swelled to more than 10,000 service members.
The speed at which the operation launched and its scope has fueled frustrations internally and among veterans of the Guard. Multiple members of the Guard who are deployed as part of Operation Lone Star and spoke to CNN described long hours with little to do, poor planning, and a lack of mission — all of which, they say, are contributing to low morale among soldiers.
“As military, people know the term hurry up and wait. This is just the biggest hurry up and wait I was a part of, and there’s really no set, ‘hey, we’re doing this, or hey, go out and do this.’ It’s just, we’re sitting around doing nothing,” one soldier said.
Last year, several Republican governors across the country sent state law enforcement officials to the US-Mexico border, giving each the opportunity to emphasize their fealty to former President Donald Trump while simultaneously lambasting President Joe Biden’s administration.
Abbott has been a vocal critic of the White House, pinning an increase of migrants at the border to Biden’s immigration policies, although there were spikes during the Trump administration as well.
Here in Del Rio, authorities faced a surge of migrants last September that resulted in thousands of people, primarily Haitians, waiting to be processed under a bridge and required a rush of resources. Since that crisis, border arrests have remained high.
In December, US Border Patrol arrested more than 33,000 migrants in the Del Rio sector, up from the previous month, according to the latest available data, compared to just under 9,200 in December 2020 and 3,000 in December 2019.
The National Guard, though, generally serves in a support role and notifies US Border Patrol if they encounter migrants, so that agents can pick them up. In Del Rio, Humvees are located along the border at observation points with soldiers assigned to them to monitor for activity, which can range depending on location.
“There’s guys standing at our points doing nothing, so they don’t really see a mission. They just see this as we’re just used as political pawns for an election year,” the soldier said.
“I’ve seen a lot of soldiers down here break down. I’ve seen just a lot of soldiers, like their attitudes have changed drastically,” the soldier added. “Morale has been definitely low and the mental health has been declining.”
Other common complaints reported to CNN included cramped quarters leading to Covid-19 outbreaks among soldiers, delayed paychecks, and lack of proper equipment.
Retired Command Sgt. Major Jason Featherston, who was involved in initial planning of the operation and retired last year, argued it didn’t have to be that way.
“We want to have soldiers provide these specific sets of tasks down there, and then that those tasks be planned out properly,” Featherston said. “And to be honest with you, if this thing was planned properly, we wouldn’t be sending soldiers down there with improper gear.”
Those concerns bubbled up during a two-hour virtual town hall in mid-January where senior commanders fielded questions from deployed units. Among the issues raised were soldiers swapping out gear because there wasn’t enough for each person, insufficient tools, living conditions, and a failure to pay soldiers on time, according to audio obtained by CNN.
The Texas Military Department said it’s working on the issues raised, equipment and living conditions and is following Covid-19 protocols. As of Wednesday, approximately 2.5% of service members assigned to the operation have been impacted by Covid-19, according to the department.
“The mission for the National Guard and Texas DPS has been clear from the beginning: deter and prevent immigrants from entering Texas illegally, including building barriers to achieve those goals, and to detain and arrest those who are violating Texas law,” said Nan Tolson, a spokesperson for Abbott, in a statement.
But the slate of problems has already taken a toll on deployed soldiers. “It made me lose faith in a lot of the stuff that I had faith in as far the military goes,” another solider told CNN, citing frequently changing plans.
“My frustrations are mostly at the state level. The lack of planning, general care about individuals on the ground,” echoed another soldier deployed under Operation Lone Star.
Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Martinez told CNN the mere presence of authorities is keeping residents of Del Rio, which falls under his jurisdiction, safe.
“If their duty is to, you know, sit on at a post and make sure that nobody comes across and if somebody comes across, call Border Patrol, you know, so be it, I think it’s needed,” Martinez said.
A large white tent has been mounted in the parking lot in front of the sheriff’s office to serve as a processing center for migrants arrested by state authorities for criminal trespassing. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, more than 2,900 migrants have been arrested by state authorities for criminal trespassing as part of Operation Lone Star.
A key tactic of Abbott’s operation is arresting suspected undocumented immigrants for trespassing onto private property after crossing the border. CNN previously reported that hundreds of migrants, through their attorneys and court documents, claimed their constitutional rights are being violated under the effort Abbott spearheaded.
When asked about Operation Lone Star, a US Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the agency doesn’t have a “a role or partner in any way with Texas DPS on Operation Lone Star.”
Texas civil rights groups filed a federal discrimination complaint with the Justice Department in December about Operation Lone Star, calling it “unlawful,” “xenophobic,” and “racist.”
Deaths and suicides
Democratic members of Congress from Texas along with some of their colleagues, have also previously raised issues about the operation to the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security, arguing the programs have led to violations of state laws and constitutional due process rights. And in January, lawmakers urged the Texas Military Department inspector general to launch an investigation into the department’s actions related to Operation Lone Star.
Among the concerns listed by lawmakers was a spate of deaths, first reported by the Army Times, connected 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 non-mission, accidental firearm discharges.
This week, the Texas Military Department announced a Texas National Guard soldier died in a non-mission-related incident in the town of Brackettville, which 30 miles from Del Rio.
The soldier — identified as Texas Army National Guard Spc. Dajuan Lester Townes — had been assigned to Operation Lone Star and died from an accidental firearm discharge. The incident is under investigation.
“We are deeply saddened by this loss,” Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, the top general for 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 ongoing uncertainty with the mission are unsettling.
“When I sign up for the national guard, I signed up for one week and a month, two weeks out of the year. if there’s any 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 a deployment in another country for a legitimate mission, I’ll be there,” one of the soldiers told CNN.
“A lot of Guardsmen, including myself, we had to pack up our civilian lives and our civilian careers and put all that on hold,” the soldier said.