Texas Guard’s border mission needs an additional $531 million to continue past this month, top general says

National Guard members oversee an area where the U.S.-Mexico border wall ends in Del Rio. (Verónica G. Cárdenas For Propublica/The Texas Tribune, Verónica G. Cárdenas For Propublica/The Texas Tribune)

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Texas Military Department leaders told the state Senate Border Security Committee they need more than half a billion dollars in state funds to continue Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border mission through the end of the fiscal year.

The cost for Operation Lone Star, which has deployed 10,000 service members, has ballooned to more than $2 billion a year. That is well beyond the $412 million the Legislature budgeted for the military department’s participation in Operation Lone Star, and state officials have already transferred another $480 million to the agency to keep the lights on through the spring.

The military department’s assessment that it will need another $531 million to fully fund the mission beyond May 1 drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen, the only Democrat on the three-member committee.

“I think, quite frankly, you can do the same job, border security, with a lot less troops,” Hinojosa told TMD officials. “I really don’t understand the number of having to use 10,000 National Guard troops for border security.”

Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Suelzer, the department’s new leader, said he was conducting an assessment of the mission to find ways to make it more effective and efficient. He said the number of troops is a big cost, as is the construction of fences along private properties near the border, which he was looking to contract out to local builders to cut down on costs.

“We’re looking at all these things to see if we can drive that number down as we move into this last phase of the fiscal year, and possibly into the next fiscal year,” he said.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who leads the committee, said the military department had already spent nearly half of the $287 million the Legislature had allocated for the department to pay salary and wages. Birdwell said he assumed Abbott would allocate more money to cover pay for the service members on the mission.

But Birdwell said lawmakers had to figure out a way to sustainably finance the mission because migrants would continue coming to the state’s southern border for the foreseeable future.

“There is a continuing demand. … We basically got a city of Waco coming in every month into the state,” he said referring to the number of migrants crossing the border each month. “So the challenge is how do you economize this but sustain it?”

The state’s fiscal year ends in August. Abbott and the Department of Public Safety, whose troopers also participate in the border operation, have repeatedly boasted that the mission has disrupted drug and human smuggling networks. But those claims of success have been based on shifting metrics that have included crimes with no connection to the border and work conducted before the operation.

Suelzer was appointed as the military department’s adjutant general in March, replacing Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, whose three-year term ended in February and who had come under major criticism for her handling of Operation Lone Star. After Abbott ordered a major ramp-up of the mission in September, troops complained of poor living conditions, problems with pay and lack of adequate gear. Many of them were called up involuntarily and complained the mission was a political ploy by Abbott, a Republican seeking his third term as governor in November.

In his first public appearance before lawmakers, Suelzer said living conditions had gotten better and pay accuracy rate for troops on the mission had improved to 99.4%. Suelzer also said he was looking at ways to make the mission “more rotational and more sustainable over time.” Service members are currently deployed for a year.

Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, who commands Joint Task Force-Lone Star and oversees the mission, told lawmakers the department would consult with Abbott’s office and the Department of Public Safety on the length of future deployments once the current one-year deployments are finished.

The department also faces growing concerns among service members about retention problems tied to Operation Lone Star. Ulis told lawmakers that 91% of service members who had been on the mission for more than one year had decided to stay on the mission.

But upon further questioning from Hinojosa, Ulis clarified that the extension rate applied only to about 750 service members who had volunteered when the mission began last March. TMD began sending troops involuntarily last August, Ulis said, and currently does not have voluntary extension rates for those forced to go.

“We get the sense that there are a significant number of individuals that are going to volunteer,” he said of the more than 9,000 other service members sent on the mission.

Hinojosa also grilled TMD officials over the agency’s deployment of service members to private ranches owned by wealthy Texans. Those deployments were first reported by The Texas Tribune and included assignments at the iconic King Ranch, which is more than an hour’s drive away from the border.

Ulis said those deployments are directed by the Department of Public Safety, which receives permission from landowners to be there.

“Everywhere we are placed by DPS, DPS have solicited and have earned permission from the property owner,” he said.

But a spokesperson for the King Ranch previously told The Tribune that the ranch had not requested TMD’s presence and that service members were not on the ranch’s property but on public right of ways on the side of U.S. Route 77. The spokesperson repeated that statement Tuesday.

After the hearing, the TMD public affairs office said Ulis had misspoken when he said King Ranch requested the Operation Lone Star presence. The department said DPS directed service members to position security teams along U.S. Route 77 based on reports of transnational criminal activity.

Records obtained through the state's public records law show that those deployments led to 31 apprehensions, roughly less than one person per day for a group of about 30 service members in a period of a little more than a month. The records also show 68 referrals to enforcement agencies and 37 "got aways."

“I think your time would be better spent on the river,” Hinojosa, a border lawmaker who supports the deployment, told TMD officials. “[If] y’all’s mission is to secure the border, I don’t think it’s a good use of troops being in private ranches north of the border.”

Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, asked TMD leaders about a rash of suicides tied to the mission last year that were reported by the Military Times.

“Every suicide’s a tragedy,” Suelzer said. “It’s really become a public health crisis.”

Suelzer said the Texas Army National Guard has been below the suicide death rate of the Department of Defense and the Army National Guard for two of the last three years. But he said the deaths continue to be a problem and “we need to do better.”

The general omitted that the state’s worst year of the three had been 2021, compared with new Defense Suicide Prevention Office data published Friday.

The National Guard across all 54 states and territories experienced 118 suicide deaths in 2021 out of more than 445,000 Army and Air National Guard troops — a rate of 26.5 deaths per 100,000.

Texas, by comparison, has acknowledged nine suicides in 2021 among its approximately 22,000 troops. Its rate of 45 suicides per 100,000 troops is significantly higher than the rest of the Guard.

TMD officials did not respond to a request for clarification on Suelzer’s comments from the Tribune and Military Times.

Suelzer said the department has sent behavioral health specialists to the troops on the mission and leaders on the ground need to watch out for their troops.

TMD leaders said they are reassessing and improving things on the mission to increase efficiency and use taxpayer dollars effectively. But they also urged lawmakers to restore cuts the Legislature made last session for troops’ tuition assistance programs, saying troops need to feel supported when they are on difficult missions.

Lawmakers cut tuition assistance programs by nearly half last year at former top general Norris’ request, and Suelzer said his top priority heading into the next legislative session is to raise those benefits for service members.

The cut, which gutted a key benefit that Guard troops receive in return for their state service, was announced Oct. 13 and applied retroactively, blindsiding some troops who had been counting on the reimbursement payments.

“It’s important to show our personnel that we care about educating them and providing those benefits that really fill a gap in state college tuition that can’t be filled by the federal government,” Suelzer said.

Birdwell said he would pass that message to other senators.

“We’ll certainly take that within the constraints of all the other things that we have going on,” he said. “But we’re listening.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Roger Branch said the mission had started out “rough” but the department had done a good job addressing problems once they were brought up.

“I can guarantee that if a soldier is having issues and that they need help, they will have help. That is without question,” he said. “We go over and above, out of our ways to help them.”

But at the end of the day, he said, “some soldiers just don’t want to be here.”

“Unfortunately, we don't get to pick and choose our deployments.”

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