Note: This story mentions suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Or chat with the Lifeline here.
Last March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced the deployment of Texas National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border to stem a rise in illegal border crossings. Dubbed “Operation Lone Star,” some 10,000 troops were activated as part of the mission. But in the intervening months, those guardsmen have faced pay delays, cuts to tuition assistance and low morale. Notably, there’s been a recent wave of suicides among troops tied to the operation, as reported by Army Times.
Now Abbott is being criticized from opponents on both sides over the deployment, including one of his challengers in the upcoming Republican gubernatorial primary, retired Army Lt. Col. Allen West.
“[West] said if he were in command with this many suicides and attempted suicides in his ranks, this would call for an immediate investigation,” said reporter Jeremy Wallace, who’s been following the story for the Houston Chronicle. Listen to Texas Standard’s interview with Wallace in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Army Times reported last month that several National Guard members connected to Operation Lone Star had died by suicide. We’ve also seen this with the federal mission at the border. What’s happening and what are some of the issues guard members at the border say they’re facing?
Jeremy Wallace: The core of the issue is that we’re early on in Operation Lone Star. A lot of the troops who were deployed or brought in were on a voluntary basis, you know, they had an option, whether they want to be part of it. Now that’s not the case because they have so many troops that are needed on the border because of the governor’s call-up; there isn’t an option.
And so that’s causing these National Guard troops who have other lives, obviously, they have other jobs, their families back home. This isn’t voluntary anymore. So this is putting a different kind of pressure and a strain on them. And so what we’ve seen in the Army Times reporting was that there are people who were trying to get other jobs, you know, people who were despondent about not being with family, things like that that are happening.
Gov. Abbott’s opponents are now sort of weaponizing these problems to their benefit, notably Republican primary challenger Allen West, who’s been criticizing the governor rather harshly. What are his Republican critics saying?
Allen West is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army himself. So this kind of is a little bit closer to where he comes from. And he was pretty emphatic about it. He said, you know, if he were in command with this many suicides and attempted suicides in his ranks, this would call for an immediate investigation. And he says that needs to happen, and there needs to be a change in leadership of the Texas Military Department, which oversees all of this.
He says it’s clear where all the fall on this falls, is on Greg Abbott. He was very clear about that. He’s going to use this throughout this campaign. And we’ve seen it from Democrat Beto O’Rourke too. Beto O’Rourke, early last week, ended up with an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, where he also dressed down Gov. Abbott over this, and saying that his mission is adding to the strain of these people’s lives. And, [as] he calls it, for political gain.
Has Abbott responded to these criticisms or addressed these issues facing guard members stationed at the border?
Not directly in terms of the number of suicides. But, you know, his office did tell me that they’re very grateful for the service of the men and women in the National Guard and that they are working with services to ensure that everybody who is deployed has the support that they need. They weren’t very specific about what that means, but clearly they’re aware of the tensions within the guard’s troops, and they’re telling me that they’re trying to get them help and assistance.
Has it been made clear how much longer this Operation Lone Star is going to continue or is it open-ended?
There has been no date set on it, and it is seemingly tied to the flow of immigration that is happening at the border. And it’s very clear, Gov. Abbott’s office has made clear that, you know, this is [President] Joe Biden to them; this is his fault, whatever is happening down there because they’re having to deploy troops where they think the federal government should have been stepping in and beefing up their own border security. And Abbott is is convinced that he is filling in the gaps of what the Biden administration has left. And that would suggest that until there’s some change in the border crossings, Abbott doesn’t sound like he’s going to retreat.
If you or someone you know needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Or chat with the Lifeline here.