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By Beto O’Rourke
Terrible news came to light last week that four Texas National Guardsmen who’d been activated for Operation Lone Star have committed suicide since October, increasing concerns about the role and treatment of troops who’ve been deployed to the border through rushed, involuntary, and indefinite deployments.
The news of the suicides broke the day before Christmas Eve, as thousands of soldiers remained at the border away from their homes and families —msleeping in truck trailers converted into squad barrack bays — amid ongoing pay delays, benefit cuts, and an unaddressed mental health crisis within their units.
This devastating string of suicides must serve as a wake up call to the way that our Guard members are being treated at the border.
The warning signs have been there from the beginning. As Gov. Greg Abbott rushed to expand his border mission in September, Texas deployed a total of 10,000 troops in a matter of months. Some were given less than a week’s notice before deployment, complicating work and family commitments and leaving soldiers still scrambling to resolve issues at home while deployed at their posts along the border.
On top of that, families have reported that some troops have gone months without pay. A woman I met in Lubbock a few weeks back told me that her husband had been on duty in Laredo for over six weeks, but hadn’t received a single paycheck or any of the per diems he’d been promised.
Public information requests confirm that the pay delays are widespread, leaving hundreds of soldiers without any idea when their next paycheck will come or how they’re going to put food on the table for themselves or their families. Some of those who have received pay say that their paychecks have been sporadic and that they’re for much less money than they were promised upon deployment.
And on top of that, as state leaders worked to triple the border security budget to $3 billion, in part so that they could afford to deploy more troops to the border, they slashed the tuition assistance benefits that Guard members were promised upon enlisting. The unexpected benefit cut derailed soldiers’ educational plans, and since it came after the school year had already started, it left many Guard members stranded without the reimbursements they’d been counting on for classes they’d already paid for.
Given all of this, it shouldn’t surprise us that the force is experiencing a serious mental health crisis. It’s a slap in the face to the men and women who’ve signed up to serve this state and country in uniform. And to make matters worse, it appears that they’re told what they’re doing on the border is more political theater than anything else.
Guard members themselves say their involvement in the border mission lacks purpose. One soldier told the Army Times that while he had seen press releases from the governor’s office that claim troops are helping to arrest migrants and interdict drugs, he had not “heard any confirmed report of any NG soldier being directly involved with law enforcement operations at the border.”
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, who was the Texas Army National Guard’s senior enlisted leader from May 2020 through the end of November 2021, echoed that sentiment, saying Guard members “aren’t doing shit on the border.” Featherston described Operation Lone Star’s clear political motivations as “common knowledge around the office” and said that soldier morale has deteriorated because “current leadership is focused on pleasing a governor vs. soldier safety.”
In other words, Gov. Abbott has taken 10,000 men and women away from their homes, their families, and their jobs for a mission that lacks any clear purpose. And it’s taking a terrible toll on them.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support for people in distress. 800-273-8255
Last month, a 21-year-old Guard member was preparing to accept the job of his dreams when he was tapped for the border mission, without any idea how long his deployment would last. He submitted a request for a hardship release so that he could accept the job, but his request was denied.
He killed himself days later.
Gov. Abbott is the commander-in-chief of the Texas National Guard. If he chooses to deploy those under his command, it is his duty to pay them, deliver the benefits he promised them, and ensure they receive proper mental health support in order to prevent the kind of tragedy we’ve seen in recent months.
And if he can’t justify their deployment, he owes it to them and their families to send them home.
Beto O’Rourke is a candidate for governor of Texas in the 2022 election.
Cover photo: Texas National Guard soldiers have been deployed to the Mexican border by Gov. Greg Abbott. (Photo courtesy of Texas Military Department)