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Military & Veterans' Issues

Here's What Life Is Like For National Guard Troops On The Border

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Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. De’Jon Williams
Spc. Joshua Smoak, a camera operator with Task Force-Volunteer, sits inside a Mobile Video Surveillance System Truck in Rio Grande City, Texas, Dec. 21, 2019. Smoak also serves as the driver for his two-man MVS truck team. | http://bit.ly/2TFSXhQ

Thousands of military troops remain deployed at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of the Trump administration’s effort to prevent illegal crossings. Some of them are active duty service members, but many are part of the National Guard — from states as far away as Iowa and Kentucky. 

It's an unusual deployment, with troops quartered in hotels and families allowed to visit.

In a darkened room inside the McAllen border patrol station, a couple of National Guard troops are bathed in violet glare. Ahead of them is a wall of screens, each displaying camera feeds from different parts of the border. 

Machines beep intermittently and fuzzy radio transmissions echo throughout the room. 

Using motion sensors and control towers, the Guard can see vehicles, terrain and occasionally people. Every so often, they spot something suspicious, like someone hauling drug bundles or trying to cross the border illegally. Then they’ll report it to the border patrol.

“Agents, be advised,” said one Guardsman, picking up a phone. “I have two scouts on an ATV and they're making their rounds on the southside. They also have a pickup with about four bodies.”

The McAllen border patrol station’s area of responsibility is broken up into east and west. Teams of Guardsmen monitor both sides and try to outdo one another with sightings.

"It's kind of a competition. Whoever calls it out first,” said border patrol agent Juan Reyna, who works alongside the National Guard in the tactical operations center. 

“For us to make it fun here, we usually let them know, like, ‘Hey yesterday west side beat you guys. So come on, east side, you've got to come up with bodies this time around.’” 

Along the border itself, National Guard personnel also operate scope trucks--pickups with raised cameras in their beds--used to monitor border activity. Aside from manning those trucks in high-traffic areas, they also clear roads for the border patrol, help fix their equipment and perform administrative tasks. 

A short distance away — in Havana, Texas — border patrol agents maneuver their vehicles through neighborhoods along the border itself, speaking over the radio about potential incursions. 

Agent Hermann Rivera gets a call from a Guardsman about a small group of border-crossers making their way through the brush nearby. He pulls his truck over, gets out, and disappears into the overgrowth as several other agents arrive. 

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Credit Carson Frame / TPR News
Border patrol agents apprehend four migrants in Havana, Texas, after receiving a surveillance call from National Guard personnel.

Within minutes, they’ve handcuffed four migrants in a grove of trees and started to process them.

The Mission 

Since 2014, National Guard troops have been a regular presence on the U.S. southern border. There are now some 1,700 in Texas alone — about 1,600 from the Army National Guard and about 100 from the Air National Guard. Support includes personnel from Texas, Nebraska, Utah, Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Iowa. 

“So we’re filling crucial gaps for Customs and Border Protection — for border patrol — in certain locations here,” said Maj. Mike Perry, a public affairs officer with the Texas National Guard. “We’re here so they can focus on their law enforcement job.”

“We provide infrastructure, operational and aerial support, information and detection,” he added.

It’s unclear how often Guardsmen actually contribute to apprehensions — or whether their presence has helped drive down the number of crossings. Since troop levels ticked up in April 2018, the number of migrant crossings has fluctuated widely — partly in response to seasonal shifts and federal policy changes.

Not Your Typical Deployment

Guardsmen stationed along the border live in government-contracted housing during their deployments — which usually last a few months. For most, that means staying in hotels, which are covered by a per diem of about $150

One February morning in Hidalgo County, several uniformed Guardsmen ate a continental breakfast at a La Quinta Inn that’s become their temporary home. Some watched political news on a flatscreen in the dining room as other guests served themselves bacon, eggs and tamales. 

Hotel staff say they’ve gotten to know these Guardsmen and that they’ve seen different groups cycle through over time. An appreciation plaque with a National Guard insignia hangs behind the check-in desk.

In their off time, the Guard in the Rio Grande Valley blend into the community and frequent places like restaurants and gyms. 

For Jason Martinez, a gym owner in Mercedes, Texas, Guardsmen are a welcome presence. He has an arrangement with the hotel next door to accommodate troops who are staying there. 

Martinez said he often sees them working out in groups, gesturing to a bank of cardio machines behind him.

"You've got your treadmills, steppers, ellipticals, arc trainers,” Martinez explained. “I’ve seen them. One time they were all over there running.” 

“Definitely a Big Change”

In November 2019, members of the Georgia Army National Guard, including Lt. Ashton Griffith, deployed to the border as part of an all-volunteer task force in support of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

Griffith came back from Afghanistan last year and has also helped with hurricane relief efforts in his home state.

“It’s definitely a big change,” he said of the new assignment.  

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Credit Carson Frame / TPR News
Georgia National Guard 1st Lt. Ashton Griffith (left) serves as the Task Force Volunteer executive officer. Maj. Mike Perry is a public affairs officer with the Texas National Guard.

Griffith’s unit initially had some concerns about coming to the Texas border. But he said they opened up to it when they learned more about the job — and were told their families could come visit from time to time. 

For some Guardsmen, part of the border mission’s appeal is military experience. Many of those who deploy take on responsibilities normally reserved for those of higher rank and learn how to coordinate between different federal agencies.

“Coming here was a broadening assignment for them,” Griffith said. “They get to learn how the federal government operates, and it also helps them accrue some time and some experience down here in Texas. That'll help them, not only here, but in their military career.”

Griffith, who works in local law enforcement when not on orders, said life at the border isn’t what he expected: 

“You think, ‘Man, this is Texas. It might be desert. You won't have a lot of things to do.’ But when we came out here to this community, it was well built up. You have so many attractions to come and stay in the area… This is a wonderful place to be.”

The word is getting out, Griffith said, with more Guardsmen wanting to come to the border and serve. 

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.