AUSTIN (KXAN) — A string of recent deaths among Texas National Guardsmen deployed as part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star is raising questions about the mission.
In October, the governor announced more troops would be sent to the U.S.-Mexico border, adding up to 2,500 total.
Last week, Davis Winkie with the Army Times reported a jarring trend among those guardsmen: four had died by suicide since late October.
“The key stressor that all four of these soldiers had in common was, the state of Texas had either asked them to drop their life on two weeks, one week, maybe less notice,” Winkie told Nexstar.
“The most recent was 1st Lt. Charles Williams, who died last Thursday while on a holiday pass to go home and see his family. He had been leading soldiers out there in Del Rio on the border, and was actually in the same company, in the same unit, as 1st Sgt. Kenny Crutcher who died in November,” Winkie explained.
While Winkie said it’s tough to speculate, the guardsmen deployed on Operation Lone Star have faced some tough challenges.
“For somebody who hasn’t had to put down their civilian life on that kind of notice, to go on a mission where you don’t know how long you’re going to be there. You don’t know if you’re going to be allowed see your family regularly, that’s a really significant stressor,” Winkie added.
Additionally, guardsmen in the operation have faced delays in payments and cuts to benefits.
In a statement, the Texas Military Department said it could confirm those four deaths, but did not yet confirm they were suicides, citing ongoing investigations.
“We take the loss of any service member seriously and prioritize mitigating risk to loss of life in everything we do. We can confirm the loss of these four service members; however, the cause of death and circumstances surrounding each are currently under investigation,” a TMD spokesperson said in part.
Winkie reached out to those who knew the guardsmen best to learn more.
“By speaking with family members, by speaking with sources with knowledge of the investigations or sources otherwise involved with the men who died, and then also through official TMD documents that I obtained, all four members died by gunshot wounds that are believed to be self-inflicted,” Winkie said.
The deaths are now renewing questions about the need for all 2,500 soldiers to be deployed at our southern border.
“With most of them unable to do anything meaningful to address the immigration challenges that we have, and a real challenge with morale that has led to the suicides of four members of the guard,” Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke said this week. “They’re being asked to participate in political theater.”
The governor has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the soldiers’ presence on the southern border, meant to help respond to the surge in migrants this year.
A spokesperson for the governor said Tuesday: “Since Governor Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March, National Guard soldiers and DPS troopers have apprehended over 83,000 migrants, arrested over 9,200 who committed a border-related crime, including smugglers and human traffickers, seized over 200 million lethal doses of fentanyl, and erected strategic barriers to stem the flow of illegal immigration.”
Immigration experts have called the move political, explaining more troops are not the answer.
“Our current border crisis is one that has to ultimately deal with the origins and the reasons that people are fleeing. And that is something that the administration is working on,” Doris Meissner with the Migration Policy Institute said.
But, that takes time. Meanwhile, local authorities in border towns said they are grateful for the extra manpower.
“I’d rather have the state doing what they’re doing than the federal government doing nothing at all,” Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez said last month.
But immigration experts also point to the data posted by border patrol each month, showing the number of migrant apprehensions has remained steady since the start of Operation Lone Star in the spring.
“There’s no question that border enforcement is in a different phase at this point. But the way to do it is to try to manage it effectively, work together cooperatively, what’s happening in Texas, really is political grandstanding,” Meissner said.
The governor’s office said it will continue working with service leaders to ensure all troops deployed to the border have the support they need.
“Texas is beyond grateful for the brave men and women of the National Guard and DPS who are diligently and selflessly securing the border in the federal government’s absence,” the statement continued.
In addition to what the National Guard already offers for mental health care, TMD also said it has a team specifically assigned to Operation Lone Star.
Dr. Donald McGeary, with the STRONG STAR PTSD research consortium at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, said we need to make sure our troops know they have options when it comes to mental health.
“The two important ingredients for stress is that something changes, and you have a response to it. In this case, the response can be pretty significant when you’re called up to duty, you have plans to do other things,” Dr. McGeary said.
“For the National Guard, they have a network of individuals who are providing free mental health care to anyone who needs it. So if they don’t know who that is, they could reach out to their NCO, if they do have a counselor, or a psychologist or mental health resources available, that’s even better,” Dr. McGeary explained.
He also urges those who have a friend or family member serving to reach out to them often.
“Sometimes with suicide risk, it can be very difficult to talk about it, even though you feel the risk coming, you feel the risk increasing, it can be hard to talk about. But try to take a moment to talk to others about it. So when you trust someone who you know, cares about you and someone you care about, give yourself an opportunity to have it addressed,” Dr. McGeary said.
Anyone who needs help can call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.