AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Tuesday, state senators continued a hearing to assess how Texas is utilizing the billions in funding set aside for border security over the last year.

It began Tuesday morning with officials from the Texas Military Department, which oversees the Texas National Guard deployed with Operation Lone Star.

It’s the first time Adjutant General of Texas Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer is testifying to lawmakers, who was appointed March 14 and ceremonially sworn in Monday.

He touts the success of the mission by the amount of apprehensions and drug seizures guardsmen have assisted other state agencies with, and what they’ve been able to deter.

“As testament to these efforts, and supported by the funding generously appointed, appropriated by this body, there have been no additional migrant caravans since the interagency surge following the Haitian migrant crisis [in September],” Suelzer said Tuesday morning.

There have been issues reported by some of the 10,000 guardsmen deployed with the border mission, including pay issues, poor living conditions and low morale.

Lawmakers questioned TMD officials on all of those points Tuesday.

“For example, our pay accuracy rate has improved to 99.4%,” Suelzer said.

Living conditions at base camps are also in the process of transitioning from sleep trailers to four-man dorm-style living.

“So of the six base camps, two of them are 100% complete, two of them are anywhere between 70-90% complete, and two are yet to be started,” Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis told lawmakers Tuesday.

Guardsmen, who spoke with KXAN but asked to keep their identities concealed, said it was also unclear at the beginning of the mission how long they would be deployed for.

“Not knowing, that was the most difficult part. Because in the very beginning, people were saying anything from like, 120 days, 180 days, to nine months,” a guardsmen said. “If they just told us that from day one, I think a lot more people would have been less frustrated.”

Tuesday, Ulis said the tours are one-year long.

“The tours are currently for 365 days, one year, and then we would look at, do the analysis with the office of the governor on success rate,” Ulis said.

Suelzer added, though, that he is currently doing an analysis of the operation himself, and if the operation is renewed, would aim to keep tours shorter.

“I think you’ll find an output of my assessment that will be more rotational and more sustainable over time,” he said.

Suelzer said he is aiming to decrease the number of troops on the border if the mission proceeds.

“Manpower is a big cost. So we’ve talked about using boats up along the river, which, a boat crew moving up and down the river could take the place of many soldiers or airmen or state guards personnel on security points. And using other technology sensors that could be used to monitor an area without troops needing to be there,” he continued.

To continue at its current operating capacity, with 10,000 troops deployed, TMD said it would need half a billion dollars to continue through the end of this fiscal year.

“We’re currently funded through May 1. And so we will need additional $531 million to continue through the end of the state fiscal year,” Suelzer said.

State Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa, (D – McAllen), said he approves of the current mission, but doesn’t think TMD is utilizing its tools in the best way.

“I think you have too [many] men and women, too many troops down there. I’m sorry, but from everything I know and see with my expensive military, you’re really not making good use of your tools. You have too many up there that you don’t really need,” Sen. Hinojosa said.

“Obviously, we can’t just ignore the problem and do nothing. But at the same time, we are spending and burning quite a bit of money and taxpayers’ money,” Hinojosa continued.

Weighing morale

Senators also asked TMD about reports of low morale Tuesday. Ulis said morale has “increased significantly.”

“Through some of the actions that we’ve taken to reform the base camps, as everyone’s very familiar with the trailers was the number one thing that the soldiers and airmen were concerned about. Additionally, increasing the speed of the Internet. Now we have [it] working with Starlink, which is a satellite-based internet that provides better speed for the soldiers and airmen,” Ulis said Tuesday.

But guardsmen KXAN spoke with said that doesn’t paint the full picture.

“I will say they did make a very concerted effort to wrap up any pay issues. I think it was really just people were…accepting like, this is just my life now,” one guardsmen said.

“Morale varies significantly between task forces and ranks, but overall I’d say it’s better than months ago. Now that a lot of the pay issues have been fixed and guys aren’t freezing out on the points anymore, things seems more bearable to the average soldier,” another began. “On the other hand, there’s a growing awareness that the state doesn’t have the manning to sustain this level of troops at the border.”

Another guardsman said the mission of the guardsmen is still unclear, and is part of why he’s choosing not to reenlist when his current contract is up after 14 years of service.

“The people that are still looking for a reason, as far as the mission, what we’re doing here, those questions still are there, nothing’s changed to clarify that or to really address what our daily mission is,” he said.

“Last time I did the numbers back in January, I had made probably around $30,000 or so that I’d been paid at that point. And in January, I had yet to see someone actually cross the border,” he continued.

When asked about morale at the hearing, Ulis said the department is consistently sharing successful statistics of the operation with soldiers, but there is room to improve.

“We do need to do a better job of ensuring that every soldier that is participating along the border understands that although they may not see anything for a day, the adjacent point over or the DPS behind them are actually conducting arrests, apprehending migrants as well,” Ulis said.

When asked about retention rate, Ulis said 91% of volunteers on the mission agreed to stay on after hitting their one-year mark.

“In March of 2022, those individuals that have served on the border for a year, who could freely end of mission and return to their families, employers, 91% of them decided to stay on,” he said.

But back in March 2021, the operation wasn’t nearly as large-scale as it is now, and at that point, deployment was voluntary. Ulis estimated around 750 volunteers.

Ulis did not have a metric for the other 9,200 troops deployed, because he said they have not yet hit their one-year mark.

Suelzer said Tuesday he’s making it a priority next session to ask lawmakers to fully fund the department’s tuition assistance program again. That budget was slashed in half by TMD after the governor directed all state agencies to slash their budgets by 5% to help with the state’s economy coming out of the pandemic.

“During this current biennium, our state tuition assistance was cut by 47.6%. It’s important to show our personnel that we care about educating them…in providing those benefits will really fill a gap in state college tuition that can’t be filled by the federal government,” Suelzer said.

This is an ongoing story that will be updated and air at 5 p.m. on KXAN.