'We are absolutely political pawns here' — Gov. Abbott condemned over mistreatment of National Guard
For the past year, Gov. Greg Abbott has amassed thousands of National Guard troops to the border as part of his controversial Operation Lone Star program. The program enlists the Department of Public Safety along with the Texas National Guard to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges to deter border crossings.
It’s controversial for a number of reasons. Critics say immigration is under the purview of the federal government. Critics also say it violates due process for migrants. The program was recently ruled unconstitutional by a judge in Travis County.
Abbott originally earned praise from conservatives for his border mission until recent revelations from the Army Times of suicides, poor working conditions, and pay issues among the Guardsmen.
“Fundamentally, deep down in my heart, I know that… there's really no point to this thing. It's a huge expense. It's a huge waste of time. It's a huge waste of effort,” a Guardsman told TPR. He asked to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation.
Although the National Guard has always had a constant presence at the border, it’s usually on a volunteer basis.
But in early October, Abbott ordered 10,000 troops to the Texas-Mexico border — about half of the state’s Guardsmen. They’ve assisted the DPS troopers in arresting single male migrants if they’re found on state-owned or private property.
The deployment was involuntarily, and soldiers were stationed hours away from their homes for an indefinite amount of time — many with less than a week’s notice.
“Within a handful of days, you know, your life is kind of completely upended. And you're told that you have to move hundreds of miles away,” another Guardsman told TPR, who also asked to remain anonymous.
He said it wasn’t just the last-minute deployments. It was also the living conditions. Guardmembers would have to sleep on stacked bunk beds in 18-wheeler trailers, with 30 people to a trailer. Their bathrooms were portable toilets. Some were living out of their cars.
“These conditions are just, I think, unparalleled,” he explained. “I mean, really, the only comparison I could draw would be the Hurricane Harvey mission where we were sleeping in high school gymnasiums or other military armories that didn't have power. But you know, at least in those situations, you could explain that away, because a Category Four hurricane had just hit the city… it makes sense that you would live in poor conditions.”
They were also short on equipment, such as cold-weather gear.
The Guardsman said he believes their presence on the border is unnecessary.
“We're not actually putting handcuffs on people, or chasing people around. … We're not driving the Humvees, like trying to pull over trucks and stuff that – we’re just sitting there facilitating a job that already existed,” he said.
He said these new issues just added to existing ones. Pay had always been inconsistent, with some not getting paid in full, or getting paid late or not getting paid at all.
Two months after the deployment, four Guardsmen associated with the mission committed suicide. The Guardsman said he thinks a lot of the troops’ mental health struggles stemmed from the mission.
“As far as some of these other issues, like mental health and things like that, I don't think these were necessarily existing issues. I think this mission is responsible for creating some of those issues,” he said.
With early voting beginning ahead of the state’s March 1 primary, Abbott is now facing criticism from both the left and the right.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke has been outspoken against the program since its creation.
“This is an embarrassment. And Greg Abbott has a lot to answer for him,” he said. “And this is not the way to meet the challenges that we have at the border, and certainly isn't the right way to treat those who serve this state in this country in the Texas National Guard.”
Allen West, a veteran and Republican gubernatorial candidate, attacked Abbott during a campaign speech for not adequately preparing for such a massive mobilization.
“Why is this happening? Because we rushed into a failure. We decided that it was all about political optics. It was about a political opportunity.”
West’s stance on border security closely resembles Abbott’s but his defense of the Guard gives him a chance to differentiate himself, said Emily Sydnor, a political scientist at Southwestern University.
“It's creating a distinction where there isn't much of one for the purpose of trying to bring some of those people that don't really see the difference over to your side,” she said.
Abbott responded to criticism at a press conference in San Antonio.
“If they are saying something about what’s happening to the National Guard in Texas why are they not at the very same time not saying something about President Biden and having lost hundreds of members of the United States military of losing their lives to military suicide. Why are they silent about that? The answer: They’re just playing politics,” he said.
The Texas Military Department, which oversees the Texas National Guard, also spoke out against the Army Times article by claiming that reporters “gleaned information from anonymous sources and unverified documents.”
TPR has confirmed the Army Times reports with first-hand accounts from six members of the Guard stationed in different locations along the Texas-Mexico border.
A Guardsman, who also asked to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation, said the mission is all about optics for Abbott’s reelection campaign at the troops’ expense.
He said this is his second long deployment in two years, and because of it, his mental health and personal life are suffering. Additionally, pay issues and the mission’s futility have made him regret joining the Guard.
“If I knew then what I know now, then 100% I probably wouldn't have done it,” he said.
These kinds of personal stories may make some Republican voters waiver on who they’ll choose in the primary, Sydnor said.
“We think about protecting our military and making sure that our servicemen and women are living in good conditions, receiving appropriate compensation, getting mental health treatment, those are all things that are really important, I think, to everyone,” she said. “But border security, and particularly sort of militaristic border security is also important. How do you weigh those two things? Which way does the scale tip if you are Republican trying to make a choice in the primary?”
While Abbott’s approval rating is the lowest it has been since 2016, a Texas Politics Poll from October 2021 shows him winning the Republican primary and also winning in a matchup with O’Rourke in November.
But one of the soldiers who spoke to TPR said he wants nothing to do with getting someone reelected.
“We absolutely are just political pawns here. And that's, yeah, it's not a good feeling,” he said.