‘Soldier care’ boosted morale of Texas National Guard troops deployed to US-Mexico border, commander says

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Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, the adjutant general of Texas, speaks with Maj. Gen. Ronald “Win” Burkett, commander of the 36th Infantry Division, May 23, 2022, during a visit to members of the Texas National Guard deployed to Eagle Pass on a state-sponsored mission on the border with Mexico. (Rose L. Thayer/Stars and Stripes)

AUSTIN, Texas — More than half of Texas National Guard members deployed along the state’s border with Mexico said they would be willing to volunteer for another year of the same duty, said the mission commander to state lawmakers on Wednesday.

The change in morale and opinion on the state border mission among the troops represents a vast shift from earlier this year, when some members of the Guard joined a union of state employees to fight against the pay problems and poor living conditions they faced as the force doubled in size from around 5,000 to 10,000 men.

“In the last four months that I have been on the frontier, this mission has continued to mature,” said Maj. Gen. Ronald “Win” Burkett, who took command of the 36th Infantry Division in March. of Texas, which runs the border. assignment. “I understand at the soldier level that the value they bring and the importance of what they do to meet the Governor’s intent, absolutely helps morale. At the same time, working with the state, there was a lot of care for the soldiers.

In a recent survey of the 5,400 troops deployed along the border, 2,800 said they would volunteer to stay for another year, he said. For most troops, the one-year mark for their deployment order should occur this fall.

“I think that speaks to management,” Burkett said.

He spoke alongside Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, the Texas adjutant general, and provided the update at a Texas House Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing. As the hearing focused on reviewing state programs and funding for mental health services, she first called the two generals for an update on the state-sponsored border mission known as the name of Operation Lone Star.

“Our Texas National Guardsmen supporting Operation Lone Star rose to the challenge of a difficult and complex mission,” Suelzer said.

Governor Greg Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021 with approximately 500 Guard members working alongside state police to deter the illegal smuggling of people and drugs along the Rio Grande. Later that year, he dramatically increased the number of troops deployed following a large caravan of asylum-seeking migrants that arrived in the Texas border town of Del Rio in September.

Over the next few months, troop numbers peaked at around 10,000 Guardsmen, many living in six hastily built, overcrowded base camps. Since then, the Guard has honed its payroll system to near-perfect accuracy and moved soldiers from 36-person sleeping trucks to dormitory-style rooms, Suelzer said.

“I want to thank the military department for boosting morale on the frontier,” said Rep. Tony Tinderholt, an Arlington Republican and Air Force and Army veteran. “Today we are going to talk about [post-traumatic stress disorder] and sanity, and part of making sure soldiers and airmen are taken care of is the base camps they live in.

Suelzer said he had increased operational efficiency, which allowed the Guard to close a base camp and send about 700 support personnel home.

The cost of the mission for this exercise is expected to be around $1.33 billion, he said. In Texas, the fiscal year runs from September 1 to August 31. The Texas Military Department still needs the state to provide about $38 million to end the year, Suelzer said.

Continuing in 2023 at the same level of operation would cost about $1.36 billion, he said. Although state lawmakers have already allocated funds for 2023 — he’s budgeting for two years at a time — Suelzer said the high costs of payrolls and running base camps “will quickly roll through that budget.” .

Abbott has shown no sign of diminishing its border operations and recently granted new authority to members of the Guard. After the July 4 holiday weekend, when about 5,000 migrants were arrested for illegally entering the United States from Mexico, Abbott announced that members of the Guard and state police would begin bringing back these people at a point of entry.

Service members play a limited role in that regard, Burkett said. Troops secure the area and round up the migrants while awaiting the arrival of U.S. Customs and Border Protection or state police officers.

“We’re always looking for ways to increase efficiency, to be responsive, and if we’re asked to increase or if we’re asked to decrease,” Burkett said.

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