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Another National Guard soldier working Operation Lone Star dies by suspected suicide

Soldier suicide.jpg
Chris Stokes
/
The Texas Tribune
A row of shipping containers and razor wire on the banks of the Rio Grande was ordered by Gov. Greg Abbott to form a makeshift border wall in Eagle Pass on Nov. 19, 2021.

For 24/7 mental health support in English or Spanish, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s free help line at 800-662-4357. You can also reach a trained crisis counselor through the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

A service member assigned to the Texas National Guard’s border security mission, Operation Lone Star, died by a self-inflicted gunshot with his duty weapon Tuesday morning in Eagle Pass, according to an official document obtained by Army Times and The Texas Tribune.

According to the document, the shooting was around 8:20 a.m. The Texas Military Department confirmed the death and said it is withholding the soldier’s name until their family is notified.

“We are deeply saddened to have lost one of our own today,” Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, the department’s top leader, said in a statement. “We extend our deepest condolences to the family.”

Army Times and the Tribune are withholding the soldier’s identity until after their family is notified.

In a statement, Gov. Greg Abbott confirmed the soldier’s cause of death and asked Texans to pray for the soldier’s family.

“Cecilia and I are deeply saddened to hear of the tragic loss of a soldier with the Texas National Guard. Our hearts go out to the family and loved ones of the soldier,” he said. “Texas Rangers are leading the investigation, as the Texas National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety coordinate with local law enforcement.”

He also pointed to mental health resources offered to military members by the Texas Military Department and the state’s health and human services agency.

Beto O’Rourke, Abbott’s Democratic challenger who has been critical of Operation Lone Star, lamented the death on social media and decried the treatment of soldiers on the mission.

“I’m so sorry to hear that a tenth Texas National Guard member has lost their life while deployed under Operation Lone Star,” O’Rourke said. “My thoughts are with his family, community, and the members of the Guard who served all of us alongside him. They should never be used as political pawns.”

If ruled a suicide, the death would be the first suspected suicide linked to the mission since December of last year and the fifth suspected suicide overall.

The soldier is also the 10th known Texas Guard member linked to the mission to die since its rapid expansion began in September 2021.

The deaths began that month when four troops died by suicide in an eight-week span. The suicide cluster was the subject of an Army Times investigation.

By February, two more had died in accidental shootings.

In April, Spc. Bishop Evans died when he tried to save two drowning migrants in Eagle Pass. Evans was not equipped with a flotation device due to the mission’s long-standing problems with purchasing and fielding critical equipment, a joint Army Times/Texas Tribune investigation found.

Then another soldier died of a blood clot after a long security shift in July amid a record heat wave.

The ninth death occurred July 16 when a soldier assigned to the mission died in a motorcycle accident in Laredo, according to an incident report obtained by Army Times and the Tribune.

When the first suicides linked to Operation Lone Star occurred last year, troops on the mission were struggling with pay problems and poor living conditions. Many were also dissatisfied with the large-scale involuntary activations that were required to meet Abbott’s troop quotas, according to surveys of the mission’s troops obtained by Army Times and the Tribune.

Army Times and the Tribune documented these issues in a rolling investigation that dissected the hasty mobilization process, revealed how Guard leaders ignored the results of a feedback survey and highlighted the mission’s budget overruns.

Since the news organizations’ reporting, TMD has taken steps to address soldiers’ concerns and slowly reduced the number of troops on the border. Three of the department’s top leaders also abruptly stepped down in March and April.

State Rep. Eddie Morales, D-Eagle Pass, lamented the soldier’s death in his hometown.

“Hearing the news of another Guardsman committing suicide while on deployment here in Eagle Pass is heartbreaking. This has been a reoccurring instance and the Texas Legislature and state leadership need to address it immediately,” Morales said in a statement. “Many Guardsmen have given up their livelihoods, left their families and have [borne] the responsibility of assisting in Operation Lone Star.”