From The Texas Tribune:
This article is co-published and co-reported with Military Times, an independent news organization reporting on issues important to the U.S. military. Sign up for its daily Early Bird Brief newsletter here.
Military organizations on Thursday urged lawmakers to pass legislation named after Sgt. Bishop Evans, a soldier who died while rescuing migrants on the Rio Grande, that would guarantee National Guard troops on state deployment $500,000 in death benefits for their survivors.
Evans’ death in April exposed a lack of benefits for National Guard service members deployed to Operation Lone Star, Gov. Greg Abbott’s lengthy and unprecedented border security deployment. While state law guarantees law enforcement officers, like Department of Public Safety troopers, a $500,000 death benefit if they die on duty, National Guard troops who stand shoulder to shoulder with those troopers on the mission do not have the same guarantee.
“We just want parity,” said Marvin Harris, executive director for the National Guard Association of Texas. “Military Department members and their family should have the benefits guaranteed to other public service employees serving in the same scope of work.”
House Bill 90, filed by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, aims to provide that equity in death benefits for National Guard troops who die while on state active duty, such as during Operation Lone Star. The bill, dubbed the “Bishop Evans Act” is not retroactive, so it would not apply to the Evans family.
“We owe a great deal to those who protect and serve our nation and state, exactly like Sgt. Bishop Evans did,” Patterson told the House Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “This legislation will give guardsmen and their families the benefits that they deserve.”
Patterson said he met with House Speaker Dade Phelan’s team after learning about Evans’ story at a legislative hearing last year to start working on the issue. Phelan has made the issue one of his legislative priorities for this session.
Service members deployed to Operation Lone Star are on a military status called “state active duty,” which is fully state-funded. Troops on state active duty are activated and employed at the governor’s discretion.
Under federal deployments of 30 days or more, service members get benefits like no-cost military health insurance, and those who die receive a six-figure lump sum death payment regardless of the mission’s length. Benefits for state deployments are established and funded at the state level — if they exist at all.
Texas lags behind other states in this regard. Peer states with large National Guards such as California, Pennsylvania and Ohio have established death benefits — ranging from $10,000 to $175,000 — covering Guard members on state active duty. Others, like New York, reimburse life insurance premiums as a lower-cost measure.
Evans’ family said he had prepared for that possibility by buying a private life insurance policy, which helped cover the costs of his funeral. But his grandmother, Jo Ann Johnson, has said she continues to worry about the more than 4,000 service members who remain deployed to the border security mission, some of whom may not carry private life insurance. She said she supports the legislation to ease the load on families who would already be suffering the loss of a loved one on duty.
Heriberto Rodriguez, police chief of Kempner in Central Texas, told lawmakers he drove to the Capitol to support the bill because one of his officers who is a staff sergeant in the Texas National Guard has been deployed to the border multiple times. The officer has a wife and a 10-year-old daughter who considers Rodriguez her uncle.
“I’m here because I learned that if something happens to my friend and officer, there would be no line-of-duty benefits for his family. I was quite surprised to find out,” Rodriguez said. “The loss of a father and husband is always going to be the hardest. But not getting any kind of help from the state that called him and he answered is just kind of adding salt to the wound.”
Hunter Schuler, a Texas Army National Guardsman who was deployed to Operation Lone Star, told lawmakers the length and size of the mission has made it necessary to provide better benefits for troops on state active duty. He was testifying in support of the bill on behalf of the Texas State Employees Union.
Members of the National Guard serve part time and have civilian jobs. They’re usually called to help in emergency situations, such as hurricanes, tornadoes or crowd control and historically have been used for short-term deployments that last weeks at the most.
Abbott involuntarily activated thousands of soldiers to the border for deployments of up to a year at a time, some of them with only 72-hour notice. At one point, Abbott said there were 10,000 troops deployed to the border. (In reality, there were 6,500 at the border, with others scattered throughout the state for logistical help.)
The increased length and size of the mission exposed shortcomings. The Texas Military Department, which oversees the deployment, struggled to pay troops on time and provide them adequate housing. Troops also lacked the equipment to do the jobs that were being asked of them.
In Evans’ case, that lack of equipment was fatal. The Texas Tribune and Army Times found he did not have flotation devices when he jumped into the Rio Grande to save two migrants and was carried away by the river. The department has since provided hundreds of flotation devices and water training to troops.
Patterson’s bill would also expand workers’ compensation coverage for post-traumatic stress disorders and expedite workplace injury claims filed by troops.
For years, leaders with the Texas National Guard have called on state officials to improve benefits for troops on state active duty to no avail. In the last two legislative sessions, former Rep. John Cyrier of Lockhart, who serves in the Texas State Guard, had pushed legislation to provide service members with death benefits. But the bills failed to pass.
This year, with thousands of families affected by their loved one’s deployment to the border mission and increased scrutiny of its conditions, the issue is under a bigger microscope.
Sen. Joan Huffman, the chief budget writer in the upper chamber, is carrying a bill identical to Patterson’s in the Senate, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has also expressed support for the bill.
The bill remained pending in committee at the hearing’s conclusion but is expected to move forward.