Texas Denying Most Guard Troops at Border Chance to Help Families Suffering Hardships at Home

Texas National Guard securing the border
Members of the Texas National Guard at the border. (Major General Tracy Norris/Twitter)

A member of the Texas National Guard who is deployed to the state's border security mission was recently sitting in his bed, on a fourth or fifth alcoholic cocktail, when the worry welled up.

"I was wondering what I'm doing here," the noncommissioned officer remembered in an interview this week with Military.com. The NCO spoke on the condition of anonymity because troops there were ordered not to comment publicly.

The Texas deployment in October had pulled the soldier away from a civilian job, a family including children who depended on that income to survive, and a spouse enrolled in college. The loss of pay threatened mortgage and vehicle payments, even sports fees for the kids.

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The NCO filed a hardship request, a formal process for soldiers to make a case to be excused from duty, with his chain of command. But that request was denied, leaving him in a dire financial situation.

That soldier is far from alone.

A review of 150 hardship requests from Texas Guard troops deployed on Gov. Greg Abbott's border mission found that the majority -- at least 127 -- of the applications between October and November were denied. The denials come amid reports of an open-ended Guard mission with nothing much for deployed troops to do, leading to widespread drinking and reported suicides.

"I'm going to lose a lot of money, probably at least $15,000, on this deployment," another NCO deployed to the Texas border told Military.com, saying their partner had just lost a job. "I don't know how we're going to make it work. ... I'm afraid of losing my home."

Other soldiers whose hardship requests were denied are primary guardians of children or are caregivers to sick family members. The National Guard does not offer any subsidies for child care.

When Abbott kicked off his campaign to lock down the southern border last year, he rapidly mobilized thousands of Guardsmen in the state, sometimes with only a few days' notice to deploy on what could be a yearlong -- or even longer -- mission.

That mobilization of some 10,000 troops forced Guardsmen to slam the brakes on their civilian lives. The most common hardship for troops was losing income -- sometimes up to tens of thousands of dollars -- when leaving civilian jobs.

Some have encountered months of delays with Guard pay, with physical paychecks coming in at inconsistent times and in inconsistent amounts. One soldier told Military.com that their last paycheck was for about $100, while another soldier was overpaid by more than $2,000.

Col. Rita Holton, a spokesperson for the Texas Guard, told Military.com the state is tracking 82 soldiers with pay issues, and said Texas has made strides in addressing the problem. But it remains unclear why the issues existed in the first place.

Meanwhile, many of the Guard troops at the border are on state orders with different pay scales than federally activated forces. They typically earn less and cannot accrue GI Bill benefits or build eligibility for a home loan through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But the deployment has upended their lives, well beyond pay and benefits.

Military.com spoke with more than two dozen Texas National Guardsmen who are deployed on the mission, ranging from junior enlisted to senior officers. Requests for anonymity were granted to all of them, to protect the soldiers from retaliation after they were given strict warnings not to speak with the press and to take concerns to their chains of command.

For them, the deployment meant scrambling for child care, shifting wedding dates, and rushing to wrap up impending legal issues such as divorce. Some were granted a short leave to see the birth of their babies but had to immediately return to the mission, leaving new mothers on their own.

In several cases, soldiers who are police officers said superiors begged Texas Guard leadership to allow them to continue their law enforcement duties, citing critical shortages of police on the streets and correctional officers in jails.

All of the soldiers interviewed said they did not trust their commands to handle concerns, despite the assurances of leaders, and felt the lack of support was a systemic failure of the border deployment.

Troops also began to suspect they were window dressing for Abbott's re-election ambitions as he faces Republican challengers in a March primary. "We're just political pawns here," one of the soldiers said, in a common refrain among those interviewed.

The denials of hardship requests drove home the belief that the Guard didn't really care about them, they said.

Maj. Gen. Charles Aris, the commander of the 36th Infantry Division, which oversees most units on the border mission, told Military.com that hardship requests are decided by a board of senior leaders. Like any mission, he said, soldiers can be rudely interrupted from their civilian lives, and some of that is part of the sacrifices service members must make.

"We have an appeals process if people are unsatisfied," Aris told Military.com in an interview. "We got people that reviewed each hardship and made sure we treated everyone fairly."

Overall, Aris said he feels "very good" about the process.

"Is there someone that lost money? Probably. But it's not different from any other deployment I've been on," he said.

The border mission has seen other troubling signs of deteriorating morale among the troops. With an unclear mission giving soldiers too much free time, alcohol abuse has run rampant, the interviewed troops said.

Last week, a junior soldier was intoxicated at a bar in Del Rio, Texas, a border town, and got into an altercation with a border agent over a woman, according to an incident report reviewed by Military.com.

The Army specialist went to his vehicle, returned to the bar with a gun and pointed it at the agent and five other patrons, the report said. The soldier forced the border agent onto his knees, but the arrival of police startled him and he dropped the gun.

Reports of attempted self harm are beginning to surface.

A deployed Guard soldier attempted suicide this week, according to an incident report obtained by Military.com and at least four soldiers died by suicide in recent months according to an investigation by Army Times. Advocates worry that the events may have been related to hardship requests.

Texas Guard leadership must take a look at the hardships put on the border troops, or the situation could get worse, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, the former top NCO of the Texas Army National Guard, told Military.com.

"I firmy believe that if hardships of soldiers are not considered, then that could lead to more suicides," Featherston said.

-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

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