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State Rep. James White on Operation Lone Star: 'I believe this is money well spent'

 Texas Guard members in Eagle Pass earlier this month.
Carolina Cuellar
Texas Public Radio
Texas Guard members in Eagle Pass earlier this month.

From Texas Standard:

The Texas House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety will discuss Operation Lone Star – Gov. Greg Abbott's border-security effort that has faced problems from the beginning, including reports of issues with compensation and low morale among Texas National Guard troops, and four troop deaths by suicide. Another Guard member died this week trying to save migrants crossing the Rio Grande from drowning. The committee is meeting Wednesday to come up with legislative solutions for the border mission to introduce during next year's legislative session.

Texas House Republican Rep. James White of Hillister chairs that committee. He tells the Texas Standard he believes the mission, which costs Texas taxpayers more than $2 billion per year, has been money well spent, and that the Texas Military Department has begun to solve some of the issues that have plagued the mission. Listen to the interview with White in the audio player above or read the transcript below.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: First, can you give us your reaction to the death of Specialist Bishop E. Evans?

Rep. White: The entire state of Texas, and especially myself and the members of the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, we are deeply saddened and grieved by the passing of this Texas hero, Specialist Bishop Evans. And we are working with our partners over at the Texas Military Department to make sure that his honors are done appropriately. And everything that his family is due, we're working hard with the Texas Military Department on that as well.

Can you tell us anything more? Do we know anything more about his death?

We know he did what he was trained to do. As a veteran, we are trained to safeguard the people that we're about to take control [of] or detain. He was a Texas hero. We're just deeply saddened by this. But his sacrifice, the state of Texas is grateful for his sacrifice on behalf of the security and safety of the citizens of the state.

This isn't the only death associated with Operation Lone Star. An Army Times report found the suicides of four Guard members tied with the border mission. How does your committee plan to further look into these incidents and prevent more loss of life?

Suicide is very, very horrible. We always want to do a deep dive and ensure that it doesn't happen again. Let me tell you some of the things I think we're progressing on to mitigate these scenarios: one, I have spent a few days down at the border with the Texas Military Department. I've actually slept in the billets, I've walked their base camps, ate their food. So I think improving the quality of life, the living conditions, that is something that the Texas Military Department has really, really v-curved-up on. We hope to talk more about that coming up.

Also, the stress: a 12-month deployment is very, very long. So we want to make sure that we continue to improve the security posture on the border where we can shorten significantly the length of these deployments and allow our soldiers to spend a vast amount of their time with their families.

What about the report of many expressing a lack of meaningful assignments? Do you think that's accurate in your experience?

We welcome the questions, the inquiries of our troops. The mission is clear: their mission at this point in time is to interdict the flow of illegal immigration and drug trafficking across our southern border in order to maintain safe communities in Texas. It may mean that our troops do not see anything for days because of their presence there. But in another part of the sector, because of their presence in one part of the sector, we may see an uptick in another part of the sector.

It's important for the leadership of the Texas Military Department every hour to explain the mission, explain how our great troops down there are accomplishing it. They are being successful down there and we need to continue elaborating on that in a very data-driven way.

Do you think this is is money well spent? I believe this mission was earmarked for something like $2 billion in the last legislative session.

Quick answer: Yes. When we have Chinese-manufactured fentanyl coming in through Mexico, it only takes a very, very small amount of it to kill a Texan. So the amount of fentanyl that we have interdicted, the numbers of cop killers – very, very violent, transnational narco gang members that we have been able to capture and bring to justice – the assistance that we're providing to Border Patrol when they are diverted to do administrative and detainment missions due to surges [of immigration] along the border, absolutely I believe this is money well spent.

We're extremely proud of what our troops are doing. We were extremely encouraged how the Texas Military Department, in such a very short time, have been able to improve the quality of life for our folks down there, and the work that they're doing.

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Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
Caroline Covington