AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas Military Department said it is addressing issues with the Texas National Guardsmen deployed along Texas’ southern border as part of Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star.
Last week, TMD issued a statement addressing reports of payment issues, poor living conditions, and a report from the Army Times, detailing four deaths among guardsmen at the end of last year.
This week, Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, Commander of Operation Lone Star, said 81% of those payment issues are now resolved.
“We’ve added additional manpower to our 24/7 hotline, that would also involve case management. We also deployed our tiger teams down into where the soldiers are actually living and working to address pay problems,” Ulis added.
“We did deploy large scale a number of individuals in support of Operation Lonestar, we did have a new pay system that was really geared towards short term, state active duty missions. Our number one job is to ensure that every soldier receives every dime that they have worked for, and that and that is what we’re working toward,” Ulis said.
Guardsmen have also reported poor living conditions. Two soldiers currently deployed on the mission agreed to speak with Nexstar on the record, with the condition that their identities be concealed.
“I want to know why it’s such a hassle to get basic gear down here, payment, adequate housing,” one guardsman said.
Ulis said cold weather equipment has been distributed in the past week to those who still didn’t have any, and explained the trailers soldiers are living in are standard.
They’re the same trailers used in response to hurricanes, and other natural disasters, fitting 18, 30 or 36 soldiers in each. The trailers are bunk-bed style, are heated, and have electricity.
Ulis said they were necessary to be able to meet the amount of troops being deployed so rapidly.
“We had to do that in order to be able to actually deploy the numbers that we needed to, there was not enough hotels in order to be able to place them in,” he said.
In addition to the trailers, there is also a gym, laundry services, a dining hall, a game room and a rec room with internet access.
But the length of the mission is much longer than previous natural disaster deployments.
“We are in 18-wheeler trailers that are meant for about a week or two at the most their emergency disaster trailers. We’ve been in here for months,” a guardsman told Nexstar.
Beginning in February, Ulis said improvements to living quarters are on the way. The base camp in South Laredo will be the first to see improvements.
“We are now transitioning to dorm-style living and the dorm-style living will be four-man rooms,” Ulis explained.
The length of the mission is also weighing on some Texas guardsmen, due to leaving their civilian jobs behind.
“We’re short-term response. I’m a nurse, a registered nurse, I haven’t been back to my job and six months,” the same guardsman told Nexstar.
Commander Ulis said TMD processes end-of-mission and hardship requests on a case-by-case basis, and have granted 75% of those hardship requests so far.
“Oftentimes, we don’t get to choose when or where we deploy. That’s just part of the commitment,” Ulis said.
“They signed up to join a reserve component of the army. If they wanted to be active duty full time, that’s what they would have signed up for,” the other anonymous guardsman told Nexstar, stating his colleagues are frustrated with the length of the mission, along with the payment and morale issues.
“The general consensus here is while things are improving, they’re only reacting because of the negative publicity they’re getting,” he added.
He said morale is low, due to the guardsmen’s role in the mission.
“There’s nothing productive we’re really doing here. We are not apprehending anybody here,” he said.
In addition to building a total of 60 miles of fencing along the border, 10 of which are complete so far, the main task for these soldiers is to deter migrants from crossing.
“We do have service members occupying security positions. They occupy those as a way of providing a deterrent,” Ulis said, explaining those positions are determined by DPS and Border Patrol.
The Texas National Guardsmen do not have the authority to physically stop and detain any migrants, or make any arrests, but if migrants surrender to them, they call DPS and CBP to detain them.
“It’s quite frequent. They’ll come and then I mean, they’re not looking to fight,” a guardsman said Wednesday. TMD requested that guardsman’s name be withheld for security purposes.
Guardsmen also communicate any activity they see with DPS and Border Patrol, so the agencies can respond accordingly.
Other guardsmen have had to help rescue migrants making the trek across the river.
“Actually here at this point, there was a family group coming across the river and they had a small one-month-year-old, and they couldn’t carry her anymore. They were exhausted, they were drowning, I had to jump down into the, into the river grab the baby out,” another guardsman, whose identity is withheld for security, said Wednesday.
With no end date set by the governor yet, TMD says it will continue addressing any issues that arise as the mission proceeds.
“We will fix the pay issues, we’re transitioning to the new lodging. And we will continue to make improvements in order to ensure that those soldiers and families are taken care of,” Ulis said.