Breaking News
More () »

National Guard responding to criticism about involvement in Operation Lone Star

A group of House Democrats penned a letter to TMD officials, demanding an investigation into the National Guard's involvement in the operation.

DEL RIO, Texas — In the last few months, the Texas Military Department has been under scrutiny for their involvement in Operation Lone Star.  

Since March, Governor Greg Abbott has deployed 10,000 National Guard Servicemen to the border to crackdown on illegal immigration.

Last month, a group of House Democrats voiced concerns over the National Guard’s involvement in Operation Lone Star, citing reports of suicides, pay discrepancies, and long deployment.

Officials with the National Guard said those allegations are inaccurate, and released a statement on the TMD website, “Setting the Record Straight on Operation Lone Star,” refuting the claims.

The KENS 5 Border Team was granted access to get an inside look at Guard operations along the border last week and granted us the first on-camera interview responding to those allegations.

Colonel Rita Holton, the Director of Communications, for the TMD said, despite the criticism, the soldiers on the ground are proud to serve in their own backyard.

“We don't think about politics because politics and other circumstances can surround the mission at any time, right? So again, the soldiers that are here on ground love what they do. They love to serve,” said Holton.

But politics could be one of the reasons, over a dozen Democratic Congressman sent a letter to Colonel Daniel Heape, the Texas Military Department’s Inspector General demanding an investigation into the National Guard’s involvement in Operation Lone Star.

The letter cites reports of “unacceptable living conditions, low morale, and suicides,” and how this mission is “impacting the well-being, morale, and overall readiness of our troops.”

U.S. Congressman Joaquin Castro was one of the lawmakers who signed the letter, he told us on Sunday that he has received feedback from soldiers serving in Operation Lone Star and their families, concerned with their involvement in the operation.

“I think Texans are just shocked at the conditions that Governor Abbott has allowed the Texas National Guard to exist in during this assignment,” said Castro. “Poor living conditions, cutting back on their education benefits, not getting them paid on time, threatening to issue warrants of arrest if they can't make their assignment and really mostly for political show.”

“People know what they signed up for, but they also expect that they're going to do something that's consistent with what they signed up for and not be part of what is essentially a political show for Greg Abbott,” said Castro. 

Holton acknowledges the TMD had issues with their pay system, a result of deploying so many servicemen at one time, and overwhelming the system.  However, she said, the issue has been resolved.

“The pay issue resolution rate at this point is 81 percent, and it's going to continue to go up,” said Holton.

Criticism has also been aimed at the TMD for alleging denying a large number hardship requests from soldiers who are struggling to provide for their families and need to return to civilian life.

Holton refutes that claim and said 80 percent of those request have been approved.

“We are doing terms of six months, up to a year. We are allowing for hardships, so we make it work as best as we can with the amount of soldiers that we have here,” said Holton.

The letter also accuses the TMD of “back-to-back deployments” with little time to prepare to report to duty.

Holton said the rapid deployment of troops is something the soldiers are prepared to do, even with Operation Lone Star which she said is the National Guard’s largest and longest stateside deployment.

“We're built to do this. This is what we do overseas, and the TMD has been involved in many disasters,” said Holton. 

The most alarming concern outlined in the letter is a “brewing mental health crisis” and an increasing rate of suicide among soldiers assigned to Operation Lone Star.

“We've had more than four suicides across the TMD for '21, however, only two of those were on orders for OLS,” said Holton.

Holton said policies are in place to check on soldiers and they offer resources to support soldiers that may be struggling.

“There's many factors that that play into why somebody would make that type of a decision,” said Holton.  “We have a lot of resources, mental health counseling and we have a medical team that's in every task force.”

Operation Lone Star has also received backlash for the optics of soldiers patrolling the border, carrying rifles, dressed in fatigues.  Images that are drawing criticism of a military stronghold at the border.

“We do 24 hour operations and they're keeping their eyes open for individuals coming across,” said Deputy Commander Larry Creighton.  we allow those folks to sit with us and we contact Border Patrol and get them in to continue the process.

Creighton has been deployed to the border since November, and said he feels like they’re mission is making a difference.

“I think we're really helping in the sense of allowing DPS to have more bodies on the ground and more eyes and more ability to interact with the individuals coming across the border, as well as supporting Border Patrol in their efforts as well,” said Creighton.

Creighton said this operation is unique for most soldiers who have direct contact with the migrants, an operation that has also turned into a rescue mission.

“A lot of times they cross in areas that aren't very conducive to crossing, and their crossing with small children,” said Creighton . “I know we've already had soldiers jump in the water and pull kids out.”

“Typically, there's more here than what you're seeing, and the sad part for me is a lot of times you see small shoes, so, you know, small children are coming over,” he added.

People do see the uniform first, but behind it, are fathers, sons, daughters, who told us they’re doing their job.

“People are breaking the law by crossing the border, but it's always a tough thing for the soldiers because what you just said, they all have families,” said Creighton. “So when you're dealing with a family unit coming across, they want to give them water, they want to give them food, they want to take care of them.”

Holton said there’s not a definite end date for the mission.

“That's going to be based on what the Governor's needs are and what the local authorities needs are, so there's no way to predict what that's going to look like,” said Holton.

Holton said soldiers are issued four-day passes once a month.

“They have the opportunity to get home, see their families, families and come visit them,” said Holton.

KENS5 reached out to Governor Abbott’s office for a response to the Congressional letter.

Abbott’s office referred us back to the “Setting the Record Straight on Operation Lone Star,” published by the TMD last month.

Castro said the Congressional delegation is still waiting for a "full response" to their letter.

Before You Leave, Check This Out