Deplorable conditions, unclear mission: Texas National Guard troops call Abbott’s rushed border operation a disaster
The governor has sent waves of troops to the border as Guard officials scramble to execute a massive mobilization that would normally take months to plan. Some Guard members say the operation has set back their income, education and well-being.
by Davis Winkie, Military Times, and James Barragán, The Texas Tribune
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In October, amid a historic surge of Texas National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, one soldier’s leader told him “not to worry” about getting sent there. He could sit this one out.
The part-time senior noncommissioned officer said he still feared an unanticipated call-up — he owns a small business and he has a son with a disability.
Usually, long-term Guard deployments come from the federal government, with nearly a year’s notice — the NCO had several months to settle his affairs before two previous deployments. But Operation Lone Star is different.
Faced with a humanitarian crisis along the Rio Grande, pressured by conservative rivals and chided by right-wing cable pundits, Gov. Greg Abbott decided last fall to move thousands of troops to the border as quickly as possible. And the Texas Military Department, which oversees the state’s National and State Guard branches, did all it could to comply — with haste.
Never before has Texas — or any other state — involuntarily activated so many troops under state active duty authority for such a long-term mission. Nor has it been done so quickly.
A few days after being told he’d likely sit the deployment out, the NCO was ordered to report within 72 hours, he said. If he didn’t, his commanders told him, the state would issue an arrest warrant.
“I had to cancel $60,000 worth of business contracts,” the NCO, who requested anonymity because he feared retaliation from Guard leaders, said in a text to Army Times and The Texas Tribune. His employees all quit.
After “three weeks of sitting on my ass with zero task or purpose,” he was sent home. But it may be too late to save his business. He says he still hasn’t found a new project and had to sell his company’s van to pay his mortgage, car payments and business loans.
“I didn’t want to get out of bed for a week,” the soldier said. “I was unemployed … and [I] felt exactly as if [the Texas Military Department] put me there because of their … lack of planning and leadership.”
His story is just one of many hardships service members say have resulted from Abbott’s unprecedented border security push, called Operation Lone Star.
During a two-month period beginning in September, Operation Lone Star ballooned from a lean 1,000-volunteer outfit to a mandatory mobilization of up to 10,000 members of the Texas Military Department. According to a senior Guard leader’s leaked comments during a virtual town hall for unit leaders, they’re expecting the current wave of troops to be there for a year, and they’re preparing for yet another wave of deployments.
The troops there say they faced a deluge of problems when they were mobilized — some of which have been slowly improving in recent weeks:
As many as 1 in 5 troops in the 6,500-strong “operational force” who have been sent to the border have reported problems with their pay, including being paid late, too little or not at all for months.
Service members say they have struggled with shortages of critical equipment, including cold weather gear, medical equipment and plates for their ballistic vests.
Many are living in cramped trailers with dozens of troops.
Some say they feel underutilized and rarely see migrants while working isolated observation posts that in some cases lacked portable toilets for months.
Interviews with 33 verified current and five former Texas National Guard troops and documents obtained by Army Times and The Texas Tribune show that these problems were predictable — some of them also happened during the Guard’s 2017 response to Hurricane Harvey.
But Abbott’s haste in rolling out the deployment made similar problems inevitable. The active and former soldiers say that Abbott’s order left Guard officials scrambling to execute a mobilization that would have normally taken several months to adequately plan.
“If we had known from day one that the goal was [10,000 troops], we could’ve planned,” said one soldier directly familiar with the operation’s mobilization process. “We pride ourselves on … the number of [federal] deployments Texas supports. But this? This is not something to be proud of.”
A National Guard general from another state added, “There’s no conceivable way that could have gone smoothly. There’s no way.”
The general, like the other currently serving troops who spoke with Army Times and the Tribune, requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media about Operation Lone Star. Most said they feared retaliation.
The former top enlisted soldier in the Texas Army National Guard, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, blamed the state’s top general for the failures and accused the state of “hoping they would go away.” Featherston went on retirement leave in mid-August, before the border mission’s rapid expansion, and officially retired on Nov. 30.
“Based on the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey, [Maj. Gen. Tracy] Norris should have known better than to think that standing up thousands of troops on this timeline would go smoothly,” said Featherston, who was the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of operations during the Harvey mobilization.
Texas National Guard leadership, meanwhile, rejects that assertion. Army Times and the Tribune sent a summary of this investigation and an exhaustive list of questions to the Texas Military Department on Jan. 20. Col. Rita Holton provided answers and declined to respond to detailed follow-up questions. Holton instead posted a release to the Texas Military Department website on Jan. 21 that gave the department’s rebuttal to media reports detailing problems with Operation Lone Star.
“It is clear that reporters have gleaned information from anonymous sources and unverified documents, which have then been skewed to push an agenda,” Holton said in the release.
Featherston, the former sergeant major, said Holton’s statement reflects the department’s misplaced priorities.
“Instead of solving [pay, lack of equipment, and family or employer hardships], more energy was spent on hiding or covering up problems rather than fixing them,” Featherston argued. “Families [have been] impacted forever.”
Hurried deployment plagued by pay problems
The National Guard is primarily staffed by part-time troops who have civilian jobs, lives and families. Sometimes they’re called to full-time duty by the federal government. Those deployments are often yearlong missions, but Guard members are alerted months ahead of time so they can get their affairs in order — and troops alerted less than 120 days prior to deployment usually can’t be forced to go.
The Guard can also be deployed by governors for what’s known as state active duty. Typically those are short stints to respond to natural disasters or civil disturbances.
Operation Lone Star is a distortion of what state active duty is designed to do, according to the Guard general from another state, who is in charge of nearly 10,000 people.
“A lot of [Operation Lone Star’s problem] is just the nature of the fact that you’re doing [it] on state active duty,” the general said.
Like a federal call-up, the mission is expected to last at least a year, but many troops received only days' notice, and they face a high bar to get a hardship exemption to avoid deploying. For example, service members said, Border Patrol agents, police and other first responders who serve in the Guard are typically exempt from state missions, but only Border Patrol agents are automatically exempt from Lone Star.
Before Operation Lone Star, the most significant state active-duty mission in Texas history was during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, when Abbott mobilized more than 17,400 Guard troops for less than a month before some went home and others transitioned to a federally funded mission.
The state call-up was plagued with payroll problems that retired 1st Sgt. Lachelle Robinson saw firsthand when she was the top personnel NCO for Joint Task Force Harvey.
In a phone interview, Robinson estimated that around 15% of Texas troops who were activated for Hurricane Harvey — roughly 2,500 — didn’t receive their state active duty paychecks on time.
She attributed the pay problems to the “immediate emergency” that didn’t leave enough time to make sure that troops’ addresses and other administrative information were correct.
At the mission’s end, Robinson said, she and other officials submitted feedback warning that state missions should incorporate a longer planning process to ensure service members’ records are correct to avoid similar pay problems. Army Times and the Tribune obtained a copy of the Harvey review, which included a slide saying the state should “improve” state pay system reports.
Five years after the Harvey experience, at least 1,330 Operation Lone Star troops have received incorrect pay at some point, Holton, the TMD spokesperson, told the San Antonio Express-News. That’s a similar rate to the Hurricane Harvey response.
An NCO deployed near Del Rio said some of his soldiers had to take out personal loans due to the missing pay. One soldier missed debt payments, “screwing his credit score,” the NCO said. Some troops haven’t received supplemental pay they were promised, added another soldier.
“Can we not learn from this?” said a source familiar with the Texas Military Department’s state active-duty procedures. “Do we have to keep making the same mistakes over and over again?”
Holton said that 75% of reported pay issues have been resolved. She attributed the problems to a new payroll system implemented after Hurricane Harvey and said adding such a large number of soldiers under Operation Lone Star has revealed “gaps” in the system. All personnel on the mission have received at least some pay, she added.
Abbott downplayed the scope of the pay issues in a Jan. 11 press conference, claiming that “all paycheck issues have been addressed.” But service members say that’s not true.
One soldier’s wife told Army Times and the Tribune last week that her husband has received only three paychecks since October. Soldiers are paid every two weeks.
Multiple sources who spoke to Army Times and the Tribune said the new pay system is prone to error because unit-level operators must manually input pay information for each soldier every day.
Holton said the state deployed “pay strike teams” to the border on Jan. 16 to resolve outstanding pay complaints, but she did not respond to a follow-up question from Army Times and the Tribune asking why the teams didn’t deploy months ago. Since then, she sent a tweet asking troops with pay issues to email her.
Abbott's expansion under a political microscope
Border security is mainly a federal responsibility, but the Texas National Guard has long had a state-controlled presence there, especially when Democrats have held the White House.
In 2014, two years before former Gov. Rick Perry ran for president, he sent 1,000 troops there and blasted President Barack Obama for failing to secure the border. When Abbott took office in 2015, hundreds were serving there alongside Border Patrol. He kept them on after an increasing number of unaccompanied children arrived at the border.
After Donald Trump became president, the federal government began funding the Texas state border mission, expanded it and added active-duty troops. That effort continues to this day with less than 3,000 federally funded and controlled Guard troops along the border.
As President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he ended federal reimbursement for state-controlled troops on the border, and the number of migrants illegally crossing the southwest border began to soar. In March, the federal government reported that it apprehended 173,000 migrants at the border — some 70,000 more than in March 2019.
That month, Abbott announced he would begin a new state-run border mission and again send troops to the border to assist the Texas Department of Public Safety and other agencies with stemming human and drug trafficking.
The effort began with 500 Guard members who volunteered for the deployment. Nan Tolson, an Abbott spokesperson reached via email for this story, said the mission’s size was initially dictated by available funding.
The deployment came at a politically fraught moment for a governor whose popularity was sagging as he took fire over his handling of two crises — the COVID-19 pandemic and a February 2021 winter storm that caused the state’s power grid to collapse, leaving millions without electricity or heat for days.
In May, Abbott faced his first major challenge from his right flank after former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, a millionaire with money to spend, announced his entry in the 2022 gubernatorial primary. Two months later, Huffines was joined by Allen West, the former U.S. representative from Florida and chair of the Republican Party of Texas. Both blasted Abbott for failing to secure the border.
As the weather and the political rhetoric heated up, Abbott accelerated his border security push and increased his criticism of Biden. “The Biden administration has abandoned its responsibility to apply federal law to secure the border and to enforce the immigration laws, and Texans are suffering as a consequence of that neglect,” he said in a June press conference announcing a $250 million “down payment” to build a state-funded border wall.
In August, Abbott activated more troops — many of them tasked with helping build border barriers — bringing the total to 1,000 volunteers.
Then, in September, the Texas Military Department began quietly preparing to put even more troops on the border, according to a source familiar with the mobilization and documents obtained by Army Times and the Tribune. On Sept. 7, the headquarters issued a “2021 South Texas Border Surge” warning order — a formal heads up that an expansion of the border mission was imminent. A Sept. 9 order confirmed that the mission would expand to brigade-sized later that month.
Beginning the week of Sept. 12, a humanitarian crisis in Del Rio caught the world’s attention when an estimated 12,000 mostly Haitian asylum-seekers crossed the Rio Grande and encamped under the city’s international bridge, where they awaited processing by Customs and Border Protection officials. Prominent Fox News hosts like Tucker Carlson covered the issue, initially focusing on what he characterized as the federal government’s lackluster response.
Around Sept. 20, Abbott formally ordered 1,500 more soldiers to the border in a major expansion of Operation Lone Star. Tolson, Abbott’s spokesperson, pointed to the Del Rio incident as a motivating factor for the surge, as well as its haste.
“Multiple reports suggested that additional caravans were headed to the U.S., with the Texas border as the primary target,” she said. “As those caravans made their way toward Mexico City, where they typically make the decision to head to Texas or some other state, Texas needed to surge all possible resources. … Additional Guard was needed at the border before caravans decided which direction to go.”
A few days before formally beginning the surge, Abbott had signed another border security bill that provided an additional $1.88 billion to the effort — including $750 million for the state-funded border wall and $311 million to scale up the Texas Military Department’s response.
But those actions didn’t halt the political pressure on Abbott.
Carlson, whose widely watched Fox News opinion show influences conservative policy, attacked Abbott on Sept. 22, saying he needed “to come on this show to explain to us why he hasn’t called the National Guard to seal the Texas border and protect us from this invasion.” It’s not clear if Carlson was aware of Abbott’s Sept. 20 order.
In early October, Abbott ordered the Texas Military Department to activate 2,500 more Guard members and send them to the border. By the end of November, the number sent to the border would reach at least 6,500, with thousands more supporting the mission from elsewhere.
Holton, the state public affairs officer, said this deployment timeline was “inaccurate,” but she declined to elaborate. Army Times and the Tribune reconstructed the activation’s timeline through more than 40 pages of official documents and spreadsheets obtained from verified sources.
The activation’s speed became a preoccupation of Texas Guard officials, the soldier directly familiar with the mobilization process explained.
“The ‘whys’ were never addressed,” the soldier said. “It was just a constantly increasing weekly [mobilization quota] requirement.”
West called out the hurried mobilization in a campaign event earlier this month, calling it a “rush to failure.” He’s called for Norris, the state’s top general, to resign.
As the state scrambled to source troops for the surge, it began to involuntarily activate thousands of service members for a mission with no clear end date. The state has also threatened to issue arrest warrants for troops who do not show up. Army Times and the Tribune obtained filled-out warrants and charge sheets for four soldiers, but Holton said no troops had been arrested.
Of the more than 20 involuntarily activated troops who spoke with Army Times and the Tribune, none reported having more than two weeks’ notice of their deployment. Some reported having as little as two days to drop their civilian lives as police officers, college students, small-business owners and cyber security professionals; make arrangements for child care; notify their employers; and say goodbye to friends and family.
One junior paratrooper shared his frustration over being set back in college again after having to withdraw from his fall semester classes.
“I’m like a fifth-year junior [now],” he said. “My school took away my financial aid for not making satisfactory academic progress.”
Another soldier, who works in civilian law enforcement, said the mobilization is diminishing his small town’s police department, which includes four Guard members. Other departments are facing similar issues after the Guard refused to grant blanket hardship waivers to police officers.
“It … makes it very difficult for the remaining officers to compensate,” he said. “Supervisors have to pick up the slack, and the [department] pays more in overtime.”
Inadequate planning time led to logistics problems
Once the Guard members arrived at the border, many reported encountering substandard living conditions and shortages of equipment to protect them while they patrol the Rio Grande, sit at observation posts or work on sections of border barrier.
Many of the troops are housed in hastily constructed base camps in remote parts of the border. Several soldiers describe communal trailers crammed with built-in bunk beds stacked three high.
In a town hall that Maj. Gen. Charles Aris, the commander of the 36th Infantry Division, held for his subordinate commanders early this month, one small-unit commander complained that there was no gear storage for his troops in the trailers. Instead, they had to store thousands of dollars’ worth of military-issued equipment like helmets and ballistic vests in their personal vehicles.
“You have to go out to your vehicle a lot to change your clothes because you don’t have enough room to keep your stuff in there,” said one 19-year veteran in an interview. “There’s just no room. … The conditions [here] are crazy.”
Some service members said they were moved into unfinished camps. A senior engineer NCO said his unit moved in before the camp had any kitchen facilities, leaving the troops to fend for themselves at local restaurants and stores.
Three Guard troops told Army Times and the Tribune that they purchased food or groceries for subordinates who were unpaid or underpaid, including one who said he purchased peanut butter, jelly and bread to feed a handful of troops in an unfinished base camp that had no kitchen yet.
Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, commander of Joint Task Force-Lone Star, acknowledged in a letter to the force this month that the scale and speed of the deployment resulted in “austere conditions.”
Holton, the Texas Military Department spokesperson, said commanders in the field “have identified areas of improvement [for housing] and are actively working with vendors to execute those solutions.” She did not respond to a question about when the improvements will be complete.
Ulis shared floor plans for planned housing improvements with troops last week, noting that one base camp would receive the improvements beginning in February. The new “dorm-style lodging” will have a 116-person capacity and include wall lockers.
Some Guard members said that when they’re on duty along the border, they face a lack of toilet facilities at their work sites and lookout posts.
One Guard member responsible for logistics said female Guard members at those lookout posts “either [have] to go in the bush, which is degrading, or get [a superior] to come pick them up [to drive to a gas station], and then that leaves only one person in the checkpoint until they get back.”
Holton said the issue “is not widespread,” but she declined to specify how many positions lacked toilet facilities. She attributed the problem to “a miscommunication with the portable toilet vendor and we have rectified this issue.” A junior officer confirmed that more toilets were delivered to observation posts between Roma and McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley late last month.
Other troops said they lacked critical equipment, including cold-weather and wet-weather gear for the winter months.
Army Times previously reported that troops in some areas have to swap bulletproof plates for their ballistic vests between shifts because they didn’t have enough. One medical NCO who said he had to withdraw from college to go to the border told Army Times and the Tribune that his unit had trouble securing enough medical kits, which include gauze and tourniquets, for soldiers as well.
Holton said the state has shipped more protective equipment to service members on the border.
"All we're doing is staring into nothing"
Texas officials stated during the mobilization that Guard troops would arrest migrants for trespassing as part of the mission's partnership with private landowners and local law enforcement. Holton said Operation Lone Star troops have apprehended 100,000 migrants or referred them to Border Patrol, DPS or other law enforcement agencies.
Many of the apprehensions are migrants surrendering to the first person in uniform they see in order to begin the asylum request process.
One Guard member, a civilian law enforcement officer by trade, told Army Times and the Tribune that there is a special unit of around 25 troops — all of them police officers in their civilian lives — who are arresting migrants for trespassing in Kinney County, the only border county actively coordinating with Operation Lone Star.
Due to equipment shortages, those troops are also using their “own gear or [home] department-issued gear like handcuffs, duty belts and holsters,” the service member said.
But several other Guard members said not all units are seeing large numbers of migrants, and fewer are conducting arrests. They said many Guard observation posts simply watch the border through binoculars and call Border Patrol on the radio when they see people crossing the Rio Grande.
In the Brownsville area, some of the state’s most elite troops — its Air National Guard cyber operations forces — are “sitting at a watch point for hours on end with their thumbs up their ass doing nothing,” a member of the cyber unit said.
A junior soldier assigned to a post along Falcon Lake near Zapata said he and his peers spend their days “staring” at the lake.
Does he ever see migrants? “Nope, not even once,” he said. “Just people fishing.”
“Send [us] to critical areas where there is a major need for assistance,” he said. “I will do my job as a soldier and Guardsman, but I just want to be used effectively.”
Another soldier said he supports the “intent of the mission,” but not “its poor execution and the rush to failure.”
“A lot of these issues could have been mitigated had leadership taken a step back and thought of the soldiers for a minute,” he said. “They made this huge deal and rushed everybody out here, and all we're doing is staring into nothing.”
The operation’s leaders insist that there are signs of success. Aris, the division commander, said in his town hall with subordinates that an increase of migrant apprehensions in Arizona’s Yuma border sector proves Operation Lone Star’s success in Texas. Border Patrol data shows that apprehensions from October through December rose by nearly 2,400% in the Yuma Sector compared with the same period in 2020. But apprehensions still more than doubled along the Texas border compared with 2020.
Experts question that conclusion, too. César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration attorney and law professor at Ohio State University, said more activity in another part of the border doesn’t necessarily mean the operation is working.
“I don’t think it’s that simple to point to what’s happening two states away,” he said. “But if it is displacing a situation from one place to another, then it does absolutely nothing for the nation as a whole.”
Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., who worked for the U.S. Border Patrol for 22 years and retired as the Tucson Sector chief in 2011, said claims that Operation Lone Star is deterring migrants and drug smugglers ignore the reality of how smuggling organizations react to pressure from law enforcement.
“It's not that easy for drug organizations to call up the neighboring cartel and say, ‘Hey, you know, we're having a hard time here, can we run our drugs through there?’” said Manjarrez, who is now the associate director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso.
Efforts like Operation Lone Star provide temporary deterrence, he said, but smuggling organizations typically go back to trafficking drugs or people through their usual routes once enforcement begins to dwindle.
Will Operation Lone Star gut the Texas Guard?
Many Guard members told Army Times and the Tribune that doubts about their mission’s effectiveness have compounded their dissatisfaction with its hardships, and some of them are beginning to plan their departure from the service.
Retention is typically a lagging indicator of service member frustrations. Many troops are bound by service obligations that keep them from simply quitting. But that hasn’t stopped some from heading to the exit.
For example, many of the cyber airmen deployed near Brownsville — whose civilian paychecks can more than quadruple their base military pay — are either quitting after their contracts’ end or requesting other assignments away from the Texas Guard, the unit member said.
“[They] signed up for cyber warfare,” the unit member said. “If [they] wanted to do border patrol, [they] would’ve applied with Border Patrol.”
They make up one of the Air Guard’s cyber protection teams, a recent U.S. Cyber Command and National Guard Bureau initiative meant to protect against cyber threats in their home regions. In Texas, their missions include a 2019 response to a ransomware attack that incapacitated 22 Texas counties.
The departures harm the region’s ability to respond to cyber threats, the unit member said.
“If asked to mobilize our unit as a [Cyber Protection Team] today, we couldn’t do it,” he said. “Too many have left already.”
The hard-to-replace cyber troops aren’t the only ones leaving.
Another Texas Air National Guard unit on the border, the 432nd Air Expeditionary Group, reported looming retention problems after a recent survey. Out of 73 respondents who reported their contracts would expire before the end of their Operation Lone Star deployment, 45 said they were “not likely” to reenlist or extend their contracts. That’s a sharp contrast with the Air National Guard’s national rates: The service retained 92% of airmen with expiring contracts during the year ending on Sept. 31, 2021.
Army Times and the Tribune also obtained retention data for the Texas Army National Guard, TMD’s largest branch — and a branch that usually has higher attrition rates than the Air National Guard.
The Army National Guard received a goal of 505 reenlistments between Oct. 1 and Dec. 31. It secured only 327 reenlistments, or roughly 65% of the target set by the National Guard Bureau, a national headquarters that coordinates resources among states but doesn’t run operations.
During the same period in 2020, the state convinced 368 soldiers to re-up against a target of 484 — a 76% rate. During the first three months of 2021 it did even better, exceeding its target with a 105% rate.
Soldiers’ decisions to leave or stay in the Guard are personal and complex, but falling retention numbers amid Operation Lone Star’s massive, involuntary troop surge could signal a troubling trend, members said.
A senior full-time NCO assigned to the border said none of his company’s troops plan to reenlist — and nothing short of a fundamental shift in leadership will convince them to stay.
“They’re soldiers, and they have to soldier right now,” he said. “But if they extend, they don’t want life to be this way. None of them joined active duty — they join the Guard [part time], and they understand they can deploy, but goddamn, man, we’re deployed all the time.
“They’re not staying, because what’s gonna happen next?” the NCO added. “They want their life back.”
Texas Tribune reporter Uriel J. García contributed to this story.
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