Substance abuse, soldier deaths found among ‘underutilized’ National Guard troops at the border

An Army Times reporter says many are deployed into remote areas without adequate equipment, and much of their work overlaps with the Border Patrol.

By Jill Ament & Caroline CovingtonDecember 13, 2021 11:01 am, , ,

Long after National Guard troops were deployed to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump administration, an Army Times investigation finds that soldier deaths and substance abuse are growing problems within the ranks.

Army Times staff writer Davis Winkie led the investigation, and he tells Texas Standard part of the problem comes from mismanagement of the operation and from troops having little to do because their work overlaps with the Border Patrol. Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about how the deployment continues well into the Biden administration.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

There were a lot of findings in your investigation that indicated some really serious issues among the ranks of National Guard troops patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. What were the main takeaways? 

Davis Winkie: The big takeaways here were there were issues all throughout this mission. The soldiers weren’t getting the equipment they needed. They weren’t manned and organized like they should have been. And there were just staggering levels of misconduct as a result, that just indicate top-to-bottom issues with the mission.

Any indication of the reasons behind these incidents?

It really comes down to the fact that these soldiers are in remote areas. They feel underutilized; their only mission, due to legal restrictions on their duty status, is either watching camera banks or sitting in lookout posts, and they pick up a radio and call the Border Patrol when they see migrants, and that’s about it for most of them. And so you’ve got this mission where the night shift guys didn’t even have night vision goggles for the longest time that, if there’s not that to rally around for a lot of them, it can lead to a lot of other issues with misconduct, especially when we see structural issues with the organization and equipping it.

I understand that the National Guard has actually disbanded some of these task forces. Could you say more about that?

One of these sub-units that was part of the mission during fiscal year 2021, from Louisiana, was temporarily disbanded and its soldiers folded into other units because of endemic issues with command climate, with sexual harassment and just overall misconduct from those troops.

Aren’t border issues the purview of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and not the National Guard?

That’s exactly how this mission began. Customs and Border Protection [CBP] during the Trump administration requested assistance from the National Guard, and that assistance is continuing to this day, despite the fact that the inspector generals and the Defense Department have faulted the Pentagon for not having clear exit criteria for the mission.

CBP and the Defense Department have been struggling to define their shared vision of, OK, when is this considered complete? When will you not need this assistance anymore? It’s turned into something indefinite, and recently the Biden administration approved 3,000 troops to stay on this border mission through October of 2022.

Any explanation as to why the deployment continues?

Last fiscal year was a record year for Border Patrol apprehensions: 1.66 million migrants were apprehended trying to cross the border. How one interprets that number is highly dependent on your political party, of course. But Border Patrol is, it’s seeing a lot more work than usual, hence, the requests for assistance.

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