Greg Abbott’s PR Play at the Border

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S1: Just a heads up. This episode deals with issues of self-harm and suicide. So take care of yourself. On Reddit, you can find this forum for National Guards people stationed at the Texas-Mexico border. It’s the armed services equivalent of a virtual water cooler. Sometimes you log on and find people laughing over a funny meme. Other times the content is more pointed. Service members complain about catching COVID. More than half of the platoon is quarantined right now. One writes. Another soldier asks Anyone run across troops who are literally doing nothing. And then someone else chimes in about a survey. He’s just taken about troop morale. The best way to boost team spirit, this guards member writes, is to send troops home,

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S2: and that’s the attitude of a lot of the guardsmen there.

S1: Davis Winkie writes for the Army Times. He’s gotten familiar with this kind of talk. He says chatter online is the least of it. Guard members deployed to the border have been reaching out to him for months.

S2: It all started when I had a source reach out to me last summer saying, Hey, Davis, I’m somebody who is on the National Guard’s federally controlled border mission. We just had a soldier die, and I’m worried that there might be more. And this source was, you know, pretty adamant from the get go that there were some pretty serious systemic issues and that things were starting to fall apart.

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S1: After a little digging, Davis found more than one death there was a deadly DUI, an officer who died of COVID and there was something else. The sheer volume of service members, thousands deployed federally and thousands more from Texas alone. The Texas soldiers were there at the request of Governor Greg Abbott for something he called Operation Lone Star.

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S2: When you see what we’re seeing with Operation Lone Star and to a lesser extent, the federal mission, the sheer volume and specificity and. You know, the content of those complaints online is just shocking.

S1: Davies also found that what it started as a voluntary mission for Texas service members had become something else a mandatory deployment on behalf of a Republican governor who claimed to be cleaning up after a Democratic president.

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S2: So with the Texas National Guard, it’s kind of becoming a illuminating case study and the way that the National Guard is. Being used for political purposes, seeing it on this scale for a mission of this length, we’ve never seen anything like it before.

S1: Today on the show, just what is Texas governor up to at the border and what happens if his service members refuse to stick by him? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. It tells you a lot that last week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced his bid for re-election in McAllen, Texas, which is a border town. Abbott’s made the border one of his biggest campaign issues, starting back in March when he announced Operation Lone Star. At first, this was a couple hundred National Guard troops sent south to counteract what Abbott claimed were Joe Biden’s open border policies.

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S3: This crisis is a result of President Biden’s open border policies. It invites illegal immigration and is creating a humanitarian crisis in Texas right now that will grow increasingly worse by the day in getting information.

S1: Davis Winkie says at the time the deployment was pretty unremarkable.

S2: Texas is one of those states that will on an iterative basis, have small state missions at the border when there’s upticks in people trying to cross, when there’s upticks in smuggling issues. It’s a pretty frequent thing for whoever the governor of Texas is at the time to send a few hundred members of his National Guard down to the border. And that’s how this mission initially began in March, and it had some small increases throughout the summer, which were also mostly staffed by volunteers. But then it started to change as we got into the fall months and when it appeared certain as well that Abbott was going to be facing a primary challenge from the right.

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S1: It’s interesting that you tie those things together. Is there any other reason why the governor would be increasing troops at the border?

S2: So it’s it’s a situation where you have a record fiscal year for Border Patrol apprehensions. Fiscal 2021 saw an all time high for Border Patrol apprehensions, and we’re also seeing an uptick in deaths from the opioid crisis. A lot of which can be attributed to fentanyl. And as those issues have become and remains dominant and the right wing media sphere, it becomes something that demands action from somebody like Greg Abbott, who on paper has, you know, some twenty three thousand troops at his disposal.

S1: But is the fentanyl coming from Mexico?

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S2: You know, the Texas Department of Public Safety claims that they are seizing massive amounts of the drug. And you know, we do know that the cartels produce and smuggle some of it. But also you’ve got fentanyl coming from other places around the world as well. But it may not be about effectiveness, necessarily. You know, if a governor has a button, they can press to show their constituents that they are trying to quote unquote do something about it. They’ve got a pretty strong motive to press it, especially with an election year coming up,

S1: but pressing that button meant upending guard members lives. And once they showed up at the border, many troops said the mission seemed unclear.

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S2: You’ve got some units out there who are just sitting manning lookout posts and really slow sectors that have a strong relationship with Border Patrol, where, you know, I’m on a 12 hour shift. They might see two or three migrants, and it’s as simple as just looking through their binoculars. Calling Border Patrol. And that’s all you’ve done. That’s the really low end of what’s going on. Or, you know, there’s a sub task force that’s ostensibly building a border wall right now where I had a soldier reach out to me to say we’ve actually only had two workdays in the last two months. Other than that, we’re just manning guard posts around our base camp.

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S1: You know, one junior soldier told you, we just sleep in a Humvee.

S2: And that is definitely experience that some, some service members are having out there. You know, I’ve learned that the Air National Guard, which is responsible for the area around Brownsville, their cyber operations squadron is just down there on the border doing not cyber things. I find that interesting talent management and retaining those cyber guys is already hard enough. And Lord knows their civilian jobs are higher paying than what they’re doing right now.

S1: Some might say, Well, this is what you sign up for when you’re in the National Guard, you’re at the beck and call of the governor, essentially.

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S2: Well, and while that’s true, the National Guard sells itself on one weekend a month drill duty and then a couple of weeks of what’s called annual training in the summer. And while it’s understood that you know federal deployments happen, sometimes the thing is is that when you get caught on a federal deployment like that, there’s some certain benefits that come with it. You unlock the G.I. Bill, you unlock the Veterans Affairs home loan, you get early credit towards your National Guard retirement. But when you’re sent to the border in a state controlled status, you don’t have any of those benefits. You don’t get any of those benefits. It’s a situation where there’s kind of a a covenant of trust between the guard and its powers that be where. Yes, I have signed my name so that you can pull me away from my life if you need to. But there’s kind of an implicit other side of that, which is call me when you actually need me and give me a chance to get my life in order first.

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S1: I’m glad you brought up all the benefits that would come with a federal deployment because part of what’s happening with this deployment to the border is that it’s not just that service members aren’t getting those federal benefits, it’s that the benefits they get through the state are being slashed. How did that happen?

S2: So one of the things about the National Guard is that traditionally there is a balance between, you know, hey, you’re also on call for these short term state missions for like disaster response, et cetera. But in return for that, the state will provide benefits like state tuition assistance, which in most states will really help cover the cost of most, if not all, of tuition at a public university in the state for a National Guard member. It’s a really good deal, and it’s a reason why many, if not most, young kids who sign up these days are joining. But because the Texas Legislature mandated a five percent budget cut to all programs funded through the state’s General Revenue Fund across all agencies in the state. The Texas Military Department decided that the place for them to balance their books was by slashing that state tuition assistance benefit by 53 percent. Whoa. Yeah. And it happened retroactively as well. They were kids this fall semester who enrolled in classes thinking they would get this benefit at the same level they had in years past. Who then get an email in October saying that it was cut.

S1: And it’s not just tuition assistance that’s gotten slashed. The sheer volume of soldiers deployed seems to have overwhelmed the guard’s air systems, leaving some without paychecks for months. This is definitely a raw deal, but for people who’ve enlisted in the National Guard, they don’t have much of a choice.

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S2: The Texas military department is now playing games with the involuntary side of this.

S1: What do you mean when you say

S2: that like they are issuing arrest warrants for troops who don’t show up when they’re ordered? I’ve I’ve seen these warrants, I’ve seen these charge sheets that you know it is. It is truly not voluntary and the impact on a young soldiers life and future career prospects for having that kind of arrest and then likely a other than honorable discharge for their military record. That’s enough to get almost anybody to show up.

S1: So just to be clear, did the governor decide to deploy this National Guard unit and make this service involuntary while knowing that their benefits would be cut?

S2: Well, it looks like the tuition assistance cut was in motion before Operation Lone Star became what it was. And it really boils down to a case of unfortunate timing when it comes to the benefits cut. But also the state legislature mandated that five percent general revenue cut with an eye towards saving money for their special appropriations bill to fund border security efforts. So while they are linked in that sense, I don’t think it’s fair to attribute directly to Abbott.

S1: The funny thing about watching Greg Abbott back in March make this announcement about the operation that he’s had on going for the last year is that all I could think was this speech he gave. It was about a month after a major winter storm in Texas, where a lot of the state was a real mess. And to me, I think that’s like a natural National Guard deployment. Right? It’s like a crisis. You want to pop people up, you know, you want to help people in the state. So it stood out to me that instead of making it out an announcement like that, he was talking about sending troops to the border.

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S2: Well, and I think what’s important to keep in mind here is that a lot of Greg Abbott’s base earnestly believes that the humanitarian crisis of of, you know, just the scale of human migration overwhelming the system that we have to process them to screen for asylum requests, et cetera. You know, a lot of them think that the system is failing in. A lot of them think the federal government isn’t doing its job. And if you ask a lot of Texas Republicans, they’re going to tell you that using the National Guard to secure the border is just as important as using the National Guard to help with the natural disaster.

S1: Back after a break. In the past week or so, Greg Abbott’s political opponents on the right and the left have used Operation Lone Star to attack the governor. Allen West, who is primarily the governor from the right. Held a press conference with a former high ranking guard member who has spoken out about the mission and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Beto O’Rourke. He wrote an op ed in the Houston Chronicle coming out against the operation. Two others started paying attention when Davis Winkie uncovered four service member deaths in the span of two months. Davis was particularly struck by the story of Jason Cortez.

S2: Private First Class Cortez is the most heartbreaking example of why. Leadership really needs to hear out and seriously consider the words that these service members are saying when they’re asking for a temporary reprieve from a deployment like this. So Cortez had. Been told in late October that he was getting sent to the border. He was part of the involuntary activations. And so what Cortez does is he types up a hardship request memorandum, or he may have dictated it over the phone to one of his non-commissioned officers or something like that. And what he explains is that he has been interviewing for a job with UnitedHealth Group that he views as his quote, lifetime job. And he had been interviewing for it earlier in the year in September. He said in his memo, but he had been tapped to go do storm relief in Louisiana. Hmm. And he was he was able to successfully get back into the interview process after that. But the way he framed it in his memo was like, Look, this is my my last shot to get this job. I’m worried that I won’t be able to if I go to the border. And he requested a 90 day deferment. He was like, Hey, you know, let me get this, let me get started. Let me get established, then I’m willing to go.

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S1: So it’s not even I don’t want to go. It’s just give me three months.

S2: It’s give me time to settle my civilian life rather than snapping your fingers and making me show up immediately. And and his company commander so as immediate commander recommended approval. But then his battalion and brigade commanders, so to two levels up recommended denial.

S1: Why?

S2: Well, the common said, his brigade commander said, were, you know, soldier can deploy if he gets selected for the job. We can give him time for his training. The issue with that, though, that has kind of come to light in the months since is that the base camps that these soldiers are staying on are, you know, deplorable conditions where you’re seeing dozens of troops living in converted RVs and semi trailers, there’s not consistent access to to the internet or to cell phone service. It might have been really difficult for this, you know, for this soldier to be able to execute training while down there on the border.

S1: It was the idea was he’ll go to the border and like, we’ll let you hop on the internet for a few hours and kind of check in with the new job if that’s what you need to do.

S2: That’s what it seemed to be, you know? But the fact of the matter was his unit needed to have bodies down on the border in a set timeframe, and they decided that his reason for wanting to wait 90 days wasn’t good enough and whether it would have worked out. We’ll never know because, you know, 36 hours after his brigade commander signed signed the denial, he was found dead in his car in a San Antonio parking lot, having shot himself.

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S1: Do we know? Anything about why did he clearly articulate that he felt hopeless because of the deployment?

S2: What we have right now establishing that link is is a copy of his hardship memorandum packet, and it has a time stamp on the Brigade Commander Signature that just shows the undeniable temporal link here. And Cortez was supposed to on the day that he was found, he was supposed to report to his unit’s armory for their drill weekend. And then it seemed like in the coming week or so, they would be going to the going to the border or maybe even proceeding to the border immediately from drill weekend.

S1: You’ve documented a number of cases like courthouses, not all the same, but with striking similarities. What ties those cases together to you?

S2: Well. Suicide, of course, is extremely complex. It’s multivariate. It depends on a constellation of factors. But, you know, in these four days, all of them were either on Operation Lone Star or were involved in the hardship request process.

S1: How does the rate of self-harm? Or other accidental incidents involving guns. How does that compare to previous years or deployments for the Texas National Guard? Do we know?

S2: So the Texas National Guard has had some. All right, scrutiny, but some issues in the past with a high suicide rate. But. The thing that’s most alarming about these four suicide dads is that they happened in a two month span. And when you see clusters like that starting to form in a very short time frame, that’s what gets really alarming.

S1: Is there anyone who has the ability to rein in Governor Abbott to say to him, Hey, we just don’t need this many National Guards people, we can we can send some of them back.

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S2: Absolutely not. Governor Abbott is the commander in chief of the Texas Military Department. Period, full stop. There are other issues being raised around the country right now about whether the federal government and the Pentagon can even enforce something like the COVID vaccine mandate on the National Guard because of the fact that the National Guard belongs to their governor, except when they’re activated to deploy under the Pentagon’s authority. You know, like this, this core principle of state control of its National Guard is at is at the heart of what the National Guard is in America. You know, it comes from the roots of the old state militia system.

S1: It sounds like to you, that’s the bigger story here. The fact that Governor Abbott can do this, get lots of criticism for it, and it might not matter.

S2: Every governor in the US has the authority to do what they want to do with their National Guard. My job, as the Army Times reporter is to write about issues that affect soldiers. And if a governor is using their authority in a way that. Harms those soldiers, we’re going to cover it, and we’re going to run it to ground to figure out why those decisions were made and why things happened the way they did when they did. And you know, we’re still looking.

S1: Davis Winkie, thank you so much for your reporting.

S2: Thanks for having me.

S1: Davis Winkie is a staff reporter for the Army Times. One more note before we go. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide helps available. Call the National Suicide Helpline at one 800 273 8255, or you can always text home to seven four one seven four one. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson, Daniel Hewitt, Alaina Schwartz, and Carmel Delshad. We are led by Alison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter. Say Hello. I’m at Mary’s desk. And I’ll catch you back here tomorrow.