Four Texas National Guard troops have died in suspected suicides since October as the force rapidly expands to carry out Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to guard the Lone Star State’s border with Mexico, according to a report.
An investigation by the Army Times published Thursday found that to meet Abbott’s troop quotas as part of Operation Lone Star, the Guard has resorted to involuntarily activating soldiers from across Texas.
The report cited interviews with family members, Guard troops and official documents.
Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, the Texas Army National Guard’s senior enlisted leader from May 2020 until his retirement Nov. 30, questioned the purpose of the mission and the effects the involuntary call-ups are having on soldiers.
“The [Texas Military Department]’s leadership has lost focus on what matters most, and that’s the soldier,” Featherston told the Army Times. “Their inability to focus on the individual soldiers’ needs has cost several lives, and until they [focus], more tragedies will continue to happen.”
Operation Lone Star is distinct from the federally ordered National Guard deployment to assist immigration officials at the southern border.
Critics of the operation say it is being fueled by politics and point out that Abbott faces a primary challenge from right-wing firebrand Allen West, a former Army officer who was forced to retire in 2003 after torturing an Iraqi detainee.
West, a former Florida congressman who was also chair of the Texas Republican Party, has made securing the border a major focus of his campaign.
Featherston said the political motives behind the operation are “common knowledge around the office.”
He claimed Guard members began suffering from low morale when the mission expanded from a small, volunteer-based operation during the spring and summer to an involuntary assignment.
Abbott on Sept. 20 ordered the activation of 1,500 troops on top of the 1,000 already involved in the operation, the Army Times said, citing documents.
On Oct. 7, the governor activated an additional 2,500 Guard members for the operation, bringing the total to 5,000.
There are currently roughly 10,000 Texas Military Department personnel supporting Operation Lone Star, the report said. Of that number, 6,500 are stationed along the border and 3,500 are lending assistance in other parts of the state.
The soaring need for manpower has forced the department to involuntarily call up entire units from the Texas National Guard and mobilize members of the Texas State Guard.
Some units received fewer than two weeks’ notice to report to the border during the September and October activations, with one soldier telling the Army Times he only got the heads-up four days in advance.
“Soldiers don’t have time to prepare [for] being away from home” when they receive such little notice, Featherston said.
For most federal deployments, Guard troops receive several months’ notice, ample time to settle their affairs before having to leave their families and homes for extended periods.
A spokesperson for the Texas Military Department told the Army Times that “some of these [deaths] are still part of an open investigation” pending a final cause of death.
But the report said all four deaths occurred via self-inflicted gunshot wounds.
“The loss of any service member is a tragedy and mitigating loss through enforcing safety protocols and ensuring resources that promote the total health of the force is something the Texas Military Department takes seriously,” the unnamed spokesperson said.
The department noted there is a 24-hour counseling line for soldiers and commanders, as well as a “large team of independently licensed therapists” that offer services free of charge to all department personnel.
“In addition to the aforementioned resources, there is a behavioral health team assigned to Operation Lone Star with members in each region our task force supports,” the spokesperson said.
“The OLS behavioral health team practices proactive, face-to-face outreach through education on self-care, crisis mitigation, and resources available.”