Soldier Suicides and Other Issues Incite ‘Operation Lone Star’ Probe

<> on November 2, 2018 in Donna, Texas.
US Army soldiers near the US-Mexico border on November 3, 2018, in Donna, Texas. | Image from John Moore/Getty Images

A group of thirteen Texas Congressional Democrats is calling for an inspector general-led investigation into the border mission of Gov. Greg Abbott: Operation Lone Star (OLS). 

Within a letter addressed to Col. Daniel Heape, who serves as inspector general for the Texas Military Department (TMD), the thirteen members cite reports of poor living and working conditions, problems with delayed payments, and a wave of suicides and suicide attempts among OLS soldiers.

The signers of the letter include U.S. Reps. Colin Allred and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas; Marc Veasey of Fort Worth; Veronica Escobar of El Paso; Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green, Sylvia Garcia and Lizzie Fletcher of Houston; Lloyd Doggett of Austin; Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Filemon Vela of Brownsville; Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen; and, Henry Cuellar of Laredo.

The thirteen members wrote that OLS was “severely eroding the readiness of our National Guardsmen and their ability to be deployed on federal orders.”

“It is clear State leadership does not have our troops’ best interest in mind. Instead, they continue to use them as political props, whether it be through assigning them to support OLS or by refusing to comply with federal vaccine requirements intended to protect them from COVID-19,” the letter read.

“As such, we urge you to launch a full investigation into TMD’s actions related to OLS and how this mission is impacting the well-being, morale, and overall readiness of our troops so Texans can have a full accounting of what is happening to these service members,” the letter continues.

The letter cites a late December 2021 report by the Army Times that detailed four suicides by soldiers assigned to the border mission and another soldier who died in an accidental shooting in an alcohol-related incident.

On a campaign stop in San Antonio on January 11, Gov. Abbott spoke on the reports tying the suicides to his border operation, saying the loss of any life is “extraordinarily hurtful” but that critics are “just playing politics.”

Gov. Abbott said the issue of suicides among service members is a larger scale problem throughout the military.

“If they are saying something about what’s happening to the National Guard in Texas, why are they not at the very same time saying something about President Biden and having lost hundreds of members of the U.S. military to suicide?” Gov. Abbott asked.

Gov. Abbott said that the suicides tied to his border mission are under investigation; and, he believes that not all “actually occurred during Operation Lone Star.”

In the letter, the thirteen members cited another Army Times report on pay issues and poor conditions during the mission, calling the report “severely concerning.”

“These alarming reports call into question decisions made by the leadership of the TMD and Gov. Abbott, and necessitate an immediate impartial and comprehensive investigation of all TMD actions related to OLS and the conditions of National Guard troops deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border,” the letter read.

In March 2021, Gov. Abbott launched OLS after saying that President Biden’s “reckless open border policies” increased cartel activity, human trafficking, and illegal crossings along the southern border of Texas. Initially, about 1,200 Texas National Guard troops were deployed for the mission in June 2021; however, that number increased sharply to about 10,000 by November 2021.

Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, the former top soldier in the Texas Army National Guard, spoke at a press conference with Allen West, a Republican candidate for Texas Governor and retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.

Featherston said he had been in communication with some soldiers who say the border mission lacks clear directives and that they have little to no role in capturing migrants crossing into Texas. According to Featherston, other soldiers who are assigned to busier areas of the border say there is a shortage of first aid equipment and protective equipment.

West said OLS was a political stunt and a “rush into a failure.” West called for the resignation of the Texas National Guard’s top military leader, Texas Adjutant General Tracy Norris.

The Public Affairs Department for TMD said it had resolved all pay issues for troops. However, in a town hall event on January 11, 36th Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Charles Aris said there were still 80 soldiers whose pay issues had not been resolved.

The issues with payments include delays and paychecks that were less than expected.

One soldier, who spoke with the Army Times, said he was deployed at the border for four weeks before receiving his first paycheck.

In December 2021, the wife of another soldier deployed at the border spoke with KHOU 11 News and said her husband was only receiving about 75% of the pay that he was promised.

KHOU 11 also reported that some members were not provided pay stubs and could not identify how their pay was being calculated.

On January 12, Texas Representative Alex Dominguez (D-Brownsville) announced that he had asked the Texas House General Investigating Committee to investigate the issues surrounding the border mission. Dominguez, chair of the House’s Veterans Caucus, also asked Gov. Abbott to create a plan to address the moral issues and not deploy any more troops until the investigation is complete.

The Texas Army National Guard had nine service members commit suicide and fourteen attempts in 2017, which is the most recent data available.

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