Two Texas National Guardsmen sat in a “non-tactical” vehicle near the Mexican border and south of Laredo, Texas on the morning of Jan. 18. The Army Times reported that the men got out to assist Border Patrol in stopping a Chrysler 300 after it was seen picking up six migrants. As they approached, the driver, a suspected smuggler, shifted into reverse and then accelerated forward toward the first soldier. The other soldier “fired six rounds from his M4 carbine into the Chrysler’s radiator and hood,” hindering the vehicle’s escape.
Neither soldier was hurt that morning while on assignment with Operation Lone Star, a joint effort between the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard to secure its part of the U.S. border with Mexico amid endless waves of illegal immigration. They did their jobs just fine. Gov. Greg Abbott, however, has come under fire for his handling of the state’s border security.
Abbott initiated Operation Lone Star last March after his primary opponents Allen West and Don Huffines accused him of not being hard enough on immigration and discussed having Texas resume building the border wall on its own. The Texas Tribune noted Abbott’s announcement that “Texas would build its own border wall came after Huffines launched his campaign proposing that.” Abbott appears to be trying to stay to the right of his challengers ahead of November when he’s up for reelection.
But the operation has been plagued with problems of morale, manpower, pay, soldier welfare, and reports of suicides since it launched. If the governor fails, he risks more than reelection. Operation Lone Star is important because its success or failure will either strengthen or undermine the case for using the military to enact domestic border security. And while most criticism has come from those opposed to Operation Lone Star, even those supportive have blasted Abbott.
“It was common knowledge inside the command group that [Operation Lone Star] is just a political stunt,” retired Command Sergeant Major Jason Featherston, who served as Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Texas Army National Guard, told Chronicles. “Do I think we should have soldiers on the border? Absolutely. But what’s gone wrong with this is that it was hastily done and poorly planned.”
Featherston was present at the birth of Operation Lone Star and retired from his career while overseeing the Texas Military Department’s largest branch (the Army National Guard), with 19,000 people under him. Featherston said that while he cares little for politics, his “number one priority in all of this is making sure soldiers get paid on time and get the equipment they need and that they and their families are treated the way they need to be treated.” A lot of that isn’t happening or has been fraught with setbacks.
The border guards lack of basic equipment, and many troops don’t even have access to portable bathrooms, Featherston said. “There are soldiers using the ‘restroom’ on the side of roads and on public property in eyeshot of other people,” he said. But that’s the least of the mission’s problems. Early last December, the Army Times reported that “more than a dozen troops had been arrested or confined for drugs, sexual assault, and manslaughter.” Other indicators of low morale, like suicides by soldiers tied to Operation Lone Star, have been connected to both the nature and length of deployments. Some guardsmen have been on assignment since the outbreak of COVID-19, when Abbott deployed soldiers to administer vaccines, among other things.
“There are soldiers down there that have legitimate family hardships, with special needs children, with wives that are pregnant,” Featherston said. “There are soldiers down there losing thousands of dollars a month,” he added, referring to the state’s problems paying soldiers on time. Featherston expressed disbelief at the Texas Military Department’s press statement that it would resolve the pay problems. “The department uses very crafty language,” he said. “They’ll release statements saying everyone’s getting paid, everyone’s getting detailed paystubs, they’ll claim 99 percent of soldiers are getting paid. But they don’t tell you that everyone is being paid accurately, which is important.” He added that some soldiers received little more than $100 in January for December’s work.
The establishment media has highlighted the sordid state of Operation Lone Star to try to discredit a Republican governor for using the military to enforce border security. The left-leaning Army Times quoted an anonymous guardsman who, reflecting on the Laredo vehicle incident, lamented that they are “catching people who are only seeking a better life.” On the contrary, many guardsmen agree with Operation Lone Star’s mission. They just don’t like Abbott’s mismanagement.
Lt. Col. Peter Chambers, the first-ever Special Operations Surgeon for the Green Berets, has been on the border with the Texas National Guard since Operation Lone Star’s inception. Like Featherston, he supports the concept but is frustrated with the execution. “The rules of engagement are tight for us,” he told Chronicles, adding that American troops regularly receive indirect “harassment” gunfire from across the border. “It’s not a safe environment,” he said.
As a physician, Chambers’ primary concern is soldier welfare, which is a tall order given seemingly absentee leadership. “I identified issues early on regarding psychological aspects of the mission, but I was told to stop that,” he said.
Chambers said that one psychological stressor is the rapidly approaching deadline of the federal vaccine mandate. All members of the Texas Army National Guard must comply by June 30, even though distrust of the vaccines is widespread among the soldiers. A lawsuit filed against the Biden administration by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton states that approximately 40 percent of the Texas Army National Guard are currently refusing to receive the COVID-19 vaccination “for either religious accommodation needs or otherwise.” Those who continue to decline may have their pay or training suspended and could be discharged. Operation Lone Star would not survive the manpower loss.
It doesn’t help that some guardsmen have reportedly experienced serious side effects after receiving the vaccine. Chambers said he suffered headaches, dizziness, and vertigo-like symptoms after getting a Moderna shot in March. “An MRI showed microthrombosis (microscopic blood clots) throughout my brain,” he said. He also claimed that he’s aware of six other soldiers who variously suffered strokes and blood clots after vaccination.
This is not surprising, as a Jan. 20 article in Science reports instances of “severe clotting after the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.” One researcher, Resia Pretorius, even “suspects all COVID-19 vaccines might also sometimes trigger subtler clotting issues.” Some patients, including those who have never been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, have “experienced serious, long-lasting health problems after a COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of the manufacturer,” the Science article reports. The journal also notes that the “scientific community is uneasy about studying such effects” and that some patients are even afraid of discussing their symptoms for fear of “causing vaccine hesitancy.” Down in Texas, though, the symptoms themselves are doing just that.
There’s an even more fundamental problem with Operation Lone Star: it may only be window dressing that does not stem the tide of illegal immigration. Chambers said many illegal aliens are merely “apprehended,” charged with a misdemeanor, and subsequently released into the United States with a court date. “An ‘apprehension’ means that they walked by my point, I counted their head, and they got in line for Border Patrol,” Chambers explained. “The majority of people fall under that category.” In some cases, Abbott’s operation is actually making it easier for illegal aliens to enter the country.
A recent story in the Houston Chronicle supports Chamber’s claims. “Instead of sitting in jail for six months to a year on trespassing charges, as Abbott suggested, some immigrants are resolving their cases in far less time or being released from jail on bond,” the Chronicle reports. “They are then free to stay in the U.S. as they make their claims for asylum.” In one instance, more than 200 people were released from jails some weeks after being apprehended on the border.
There’s a saying in Texas: “Don’t squat with your spurs on.” Doing things thoughtlessly can be painful. Abbott should get praise for taking the initiative to use the military to deal with the southern border crisis. But by treating it as an election-year political stunt rather than a serious operation, he’s undermining his own policy. Morale is plummeting among the men, and the media, which can hardly contain its glee as things fall apart, circles like vultures overhead.
Photos: Canva, Flickr, Gage Skidmore