This article is co-published and co-reported with Military Times, an independent news organization reporting on issues important to the U.S. military.
In October, amid a historic surge of Texas National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, one soldier’s leader told him “not to worry” about getting sent there. He could sit this one out.
The part-time senior noncommissioned officer said he still feared an unanticipated call-up — he owns a small business and he has a son with a disability.
Usually, long-term Guard deployments come from the federal government, with nearly a year’s notice — the NCO had several months to settle his affairs before two previous deployments. But Operation Lone Star is different.
Faced with a humanitarian crisis along the Rio Grande, pressured by conservative rivals and chided by right-wing cable pundits, Gov. Greg Abbott decided last fall to move thousands of troops to the border as quickly as possible. And the Texas Military Department, which oversees the state’s National and State Guard branches, did all it could to comply — with haste.
Never before has Texas — or any other state — involuntarily activated so many troops under state active duty authority for such a long-term mission. Nor has it been done so quickly.
A few days after being told he’d likely sit the deployment out, the NCO was ordered to report within 72 hours, he said. If he didn’t, his commanders told him, the state would issue an arrest warrant.
“I had to cancel $60,000 worth of business contracts,” the NCO, who requested anonymity because he feared retaliation from Guard leaders, said in a text to Army Times and The Texas Tribune. His employees all quit.
After “three weeks of sitting on my ass with zero task or purpose,” he was sent home. But it may be too late to save his business. He says he still hasn’t found a new project and had to sell his company’s van to pay his mortgage, car payments and business loans.
“I didn’t want to get out of bed for a week,” the soldier said. “I was unemployed … and [I] felt exactly as if [the Texas Military Department] put me there because of their … lack of planning and leadership.”
His story is just one of many hardships service members say have resulted from Abbott’s unprecedented border security push, called Operation Lone Star.
During a two-month period beginning in September, Operation Lone Star ballooned from a lean 1,000-volunteer outfit to a mandatory mobilization of up to 10,000 members of the Texas Military Department. According to a senior Guard leader’s leaked comments during a virtual town hall for unit leaders, they’re expecting the current wave of troops to be there for a year, and they’re preparing for yet another wave of deployments.
The troops there say they faced a deluge of problems when they were mobilized — some of which have been slowly improving in recent weeks:
– As many as 1 in 5 troops in the 6,500-strong “operational force” who have been sent to the border have reported problems with their pay, including being paid late, too little or not at all for months.
– Service members say they have struggled with shortages of critical equipment, including cold weather gear, medical equipment and plates for their ballistic vests.
– Many are living in cramped trailers with dozens of troops.
– Some say they feel underutilized and rarely see migrants while working isolated observation posts that in some cases lacked portable toilets for months.
Interviews with 33 verified current and five former Texas National Guard troops and documents obtained by Army Times and The Texas Tribune show that these problems were predictable — some of them also happened during the Guard’s 2017 response to Hurricane Harvey.
But Abbott’s haste in rolling out the deployment made similar problems inevitable. The active and former soldiers say that Abbott’s order left Guard officials scrambling to execute a mobilization that would have normally taken several months to adequately plan.
“If we had known from day one that the goal was [10,000 troops], we could’ve planned,” said one soldier directly familiar with the operation’s mobilization process. “We pride ourselves on … the number of [federal] deployments Texas supports. But this? This is not something to be proud of.”
A National Guard general from another state added, “There’s no conceivable way that could have gone smoothly. There’s no way.”
The general, like the other currently serving troops who spoke with Army Times and the Tribune, requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media about Operation Lone Star. Most said they feared retaliation.
The former top enlisted soldier in the Texas Army National Guard, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, blamed the state’s top general for the failures and accused the state of “hoping they would go away.” Featherston went on retirement leave in mid-August, before the border mission’s rapid expansion, and officially retired on Nov. 30.
“Based on the lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey, [Maj. Gen. Tracy] Norris should have known better than to think that standing up thousands of troops on this timeline would go smoothly,” said Featherston, who was the noncommissioned officer-in-charge of operations during the Harvey mobilization.
Texas National Guard leadership, meanwhile, rejects that assertion. Army Times and the Tribune sent a summary of this investigation and an exhaustive list of questions to the Texas Military Department on Jan. 20. Col. Rita Holton provided answers and declined to respond to detailed follow-up questions. Holton instead posted a release to the Texas Military Department website on Jan. 21 that gave the department’s rebuttal to media reports detailing problems with Operation Lone Star.
“It is clear that reporters have gleaned information from anonymous sources and unverified documents, which have then been skewed to push an agenda,” Holton said in the release.
Featherston, the former sergeant major, said Holton’s statement reflects the department’s misplaced priorities.
“Instead of solving [pay, lack of equipment, and family or employer hardships], more energy was spent on hiding or covering up problems rather than fixing them,” Featherston argued. “Families [have been] impacted forever.”