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Thirteen Democratic members of the Texas congressional delegation on Thursday called for a broad inspector general investigation into Operation Lone Star, Governor Greg Abbott’s much-vaunted border mission, following reports of poor conditions work and life for the troops, usual pay issues and alleged suicides related to the operation.
The letter comes as another service member, based in the town of Pharr, survived a suicide attempt on Sunday, according to an incident report obtained by Army Times and The Texas Tribune.
In a letter to Col. Daniel Heape, Inspector General of the Texas Military Department, lawmakers said Operation Lone Star “seriously erodes the readiness of our National Guardsmen and their ability to deploy on federal orders.”
“It is clear that the leaders of the state do not have the best interests of our troops in mind. Instead, they continue to use them as political props, whether assigning them to OLS or refusing to comply with federal vaccine requirements designed to protect them from COVID-19,” it read. in the letter, using an abbreviation for Operation Lone Star. . “As such, we urge you to launch a full investigation into TMD’s actions related to the OLS and the impact of this mission on the welfare, morale and general readiness of our troops. so that Texans can have a full account of what is happening to them.
The letter’s co-signers include all Democrats in the Texas congressional delegation: Representatives Veronica Escobar of El Paso; Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green, Sylvia Garcia and Lizzie Fletcher from Houston; Lloyd Doggett of Austin; Colin Allred and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas; Marc Veasey of Fort Worth; Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Filemon Vela of Brownsville; McAllen’s Vicente Gonzalez; and Henry Cuellar of Laredo.
Lawmakers referenced an Army Times article in late December that reported four soldier suicides linked to Operation Lone Star. In January, the publication reported on another mission-related suicide attempt and another soldier who died after accidentally shooting himself in an alcohol-related incident.
The soldier who survived Sunday’s suicide attempt was taken to hospital after telling another soldier she had ingested prescription drugs and alcohol in her unit’s hotel, according to the incident report.
On Tuesday, Abbott pushed back on reports of suicides linked to his border mission, saying his critics were “just playing politics.” He pointed to the larger issue of Army suicide, adding that suicides in Texas were being investigated and that he suspected not all “actually happened during Operation Lone Star.”
In fiscal year 2017, the Texas Army National Guard recorded nine suicides, 14 attempts and 42 ideation among its troops, according to budget documents. Army Times asked state officials Thursday for more recent numbers, but did not immediately receive a response.
Abbott did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, nor did a spokesperson for the Texas Military Department.
Lawmakers also cited reports from the Army Times about routine pay issues and poor working and living conditions during the mission, calling them “seriously concerning.”
“These alarming reports call into question the decisions made by TMD leadership and Governor Abbott, and require an immediate, impartial, and full investigation into all OLS-related TMD actions and the conditions of National Guard troops. deployed to the US-Mexico border,” the letter read.
Abbott deployed Operation Lone Star last March after accusing President Joe Biden of increasing the number of migrant crossings at the southern Texas border. The mission sent a surge of soldiers from the Texas National Guard and the Texas Department of Public Safety to the border in an effort to curb migrant crossings.
But some soldiers at the border said the mission had no clear directive and played little role in apprehending migrants trying to cross into Texas, according to the Army Times. Other troops in the busiest sections of the border have expressed concerns about a shortage of first aid and protective equipment for their interactions with people crossing, the retired command sergeant said. Maj. Jason Featherston, a former soldier in the Texas National Guard, said last week during a press conference with Allen West, a GOP gubernatorial candidate and former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel.
Last fall, the Texas military deployment increased the number of troops deployed on Operation Lone Star from 1,200 in June to about 10,000 in November. The department said the drastic increase has led to “austere conditions” for troops. The department’s public affairs office said all pay issues were resolved last week and warned against linking the operation to the alleged suicides.
However, Texas Guard officials tell a different story behind closed doors. As of Tuesday, more than 80 soldier pay issues remained unresolved, 36th Infantry Division Commander Major General Charles Aris said at a town hall event on Wednesday. Army Times and the Tribune obtained a two-hour recording of the event.
Congressional Democrats praised National Guard soldiers for their other recent deployments in recovery efforts following last February’s deadly winter storm that left millions of Texans without power for days, and the aftermath of Hurricanes Ida. and Laura in Texas and Louisiana. But they expressed concern that back-to-back deployments are “taking their toll on a service member who has already spent weeks away from home”.
“Being reactivated for OLS, sometimes on less than four days’ notice, leads to troops scrambling to get their civilian affairs in order, if they can, with no idea when they will be able to return to their civilian life,” the letter read.
The letter from congressional Democrats comes as criticism of the mission mounts at Abbott for his handling of troops. Earlier this month, West called the mission a political stunt that left soldiers “rushing to failure”. West also called for the resignation of the military chief of the Texas National Guard, Texas Adjutant General Tracy Norris.
West retired from the military in 2003 after being investigated for torturing an Iraqi detainee for information.
Beto O’Rourke, the leading Democratic gubernatorial candidate, also criticized Abbott’s handling of the mission, saying he failed to provide deployed troops with basic rights and calling on the governor to send troops home. if he could not provide them.
On Wednesday, State Rep. Alex Dominguez, D-Brownsville, announced in a Military Times op-ed that he had asked the House General Investigating Committee to investigate the mission’s suicides and morale. . Dominguez, chairman of the House veterans caucus, also called on Abbott to impose a moratorium on the deployment of additional troops until the House completes its investigation and Abbott releases a plan to address the crisis. mission morale.
Dominguez also requested information from the Texas Military Department regarding Operation Lone Star, as well as recommendations to the Legislature on how to resolve housing, salary, benefits, and vacation issues.
Other legislative leaders, including lawmakers in charge of committees overseeing the Texas Military Department, also expressed concern following the Army Times reports and began requesting information from the department.