Senators Urge Pentagon to Send Border Troops Home for Thanksgiving

James Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense, speaks with troops from the 56th Multifunctional Medical Battalion, 62nd Medical Brigade on Nov. 14, 2018 at Base Camp Donna, Texas. Mattis answered questions from soldiers at the base camp in support of the Southwest border mission. (U.S. Army photo/Jacob Caldwell)
James Mattis, U.S. Secretary of Defense, speaks with troops from the 56th Multifunctional Medical Battalion, 62nd Medical Brigade on Nov. 14, 2018 at Base Camp Donna, Texas. Mattis answered questions from soldiers at the base camp in support of the Southwest border mission. (U.S. Army photo/Jacob Caldwell)

Literal tons of turkey, ham and pie are en route to the southwest border so that active-duty service members dispatched there can enjoy a festive Thanksgiving meal. But two Democratic senators are calling on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to do one better and send the troops back to their homes and families for the holiday.

In a letter sent to Mattis on Monday, Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Brian Schatz of Hawaii argued that the thousands of troops deployed to border states had completed their main job of laying down concertina wire and providing logistical support to Customs and Border Protection officials.

They called the controversial decision to send active-duty troops to the border ahead of a "caravan" of migrants seeking entry into the U.S. "politically motivated" and "an inappropriate use of the military."

"Our military personnel have real, essential duties to perform that are vital to our national security. Taking advantage of their loyalty and commitment to service for political gain belittles their sacrifices," the senators wrote. "... We urge you to allow these service members to return to their homes in time to spend Thanksgiving with their families."

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters last week that the active-duty troop presence fanned across border states had likely peaked at around 5,900 deployed troops. An existing request from the Department of Homeland Security would keep the troops in place until Dec. 15, but there have been rumors of an earlier departure for some.

In an interview with Politico's Wesley Morgan on Monday, Army Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, commander of U.S. Army North, suggested some troops may start returning home in the next few days as the mission winds down. But officials with U.S. Northern Command appeared to walk back those remarks Tuesday, telling Politico that no definite timeline had been sent for redeployment.

In their letter, Murray and Schatz cited NORTHCOM assessments that only about 1,400 members of the original group of 7,000 migrants would reach the border, and active-duty troops were in any case prevented from interacting directly with members of the caravan under the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits use of the military for domestic law enforcement.

"If these active duty servicemembers have completed their primary tasks of laying concertina wire, welding, and providing logistical support to Customs and Border Protection, there is no need for them to remain separated from their families," the senators wrote.

They added that they believe an appropriate response to the wave of refugees would involve "basic assistance and empathy" in the form of humanitarian aid, medical assistance and help with asylum claims, rather than a show of force.

For the troops engaged in this unconventional deployment within the U.S. border, current Thanksgiving plans that have been announced by the military involve a massive shipment of holiday food, similar to that dispatched to forward-deployed locations around the globe, including the Middle East and Africa.

Among other items, the Defense Logistics Agency is shipping 9,738 turkeys, 21,758 pounds of ham, 16,284 pounds of sweet potatoes, 81,360 pies, 19,284 cakes and 7,836 gallons of eggnog to the border and other deployed locations, according to a DLA news release.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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