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When asked in January what they liked about their deployment to the Texas-Mexico border, members of the Texas Air National Guard had few nice things to say.
“I hate it here,” one respondent said in an anonymous survey about the involuntary mission with no set end date that has taken as many as 10,000 troops away from their civilian lives and families.
Another, asked for general feedback, simply posted four middle-finger emojis.
Frustration, anxiety and anger prevailed in the survey responses obtained by The Texas Tribune and the Military Times. The survey includes responses from nearly 250 members of Task Force South, one of six units that fall under the umbrella of Operation Lone Star — Gov. Greg Abbott’s unprecedentedly large attempt to secure the border with Guard members and state troopers.
“I’m wasting time watching the grass grow at my [observation] point [along the border], while my civilian job is dying on the vine,” one Guardsman wrote in response to another question. “IF my job still exists when I return, I will have a giant hole to dig out of.”
Another member, whose husband travels for work, said they’ve had to pay an extra $2,000 each month for a nanny to watch their kids. Yet another worried about the future of a strained marriage after having to leave his wife and new baby behind.
The survey responses provide the clearest insights yet into the simmering dissatisfaction among troops stationed at the border. The survey was distributed before the Tribune and Military Times published an investigation earlier this month detailing problems with the mission that included hasty mobilization, alarming morale issues, meager living conditions, delays in payment, and the perception by troops that the mission was politically motivated to score reelection points for Abbott. Those findings have been consistently denied or downplayed by Texas officials.
Nearly 250 members of the unit — around half its troop strength — completed the survey between Jan. 5-10, according to the source who provided the survey results. The source is not being named because they were not authorized to share the survey.
Task Force South largely consists of Texas Air National Guard members under the 432nd Air Expeditionary Group. Those troops work in the Brownsville area of southernmost Texas and most are living in hotels during the deployment — the best living conditions among the thousands of Texas troops at the border.
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The obtained data is from five free-response questions that asked airmen to list positives and negatives about the mission, offer feedback on benefits and off-duty restrictions, and weigh in on Operation Lone Star in general. An analysis of the responses by the Tribune and Military Times found:
- More than half expressed skepticism or frustration with Operation Lone Star and how senior leaders planned, executed and communicated about the mission.
- Nearly 30% vented about the mobilization's length, haste, or involuntary nature in their answers.
- About 30% said the most difficult part of Operation Lone Star was the deployment’s impact on their civilian lives, including lost wages, disrupted families and interrupted careers and educations.
- More than 1 in 5 either offered no substantive feedback on what they “like most” about Operation Lone Star or said they disliked everything about the mission.
- Almost 3 out of 4 airmen said they wanted better state benefits. Troops on state active-duty missions like Operation Lone Star don’t get benefits common to federal deployments like tax exemptions, retirement credit, Veterans Affairs disability coverage for injuries or education benefits like GI Bill credit or the Hazlewood Act, which is a Texas education benefit that gives free tuition to veterans who served on active-duty missions.
It wasn’t all bad though. While the feedback was overwhelmingly negative, there were a few members who said they were happy with the pay (“when it comes on time,” some specified) and around 2 in 5 said they appreciated the camaraderie among the troops.
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When reached for comment, Texas Military Department spokesperson Col. Rita Holton said the agency “consistently seek[s] opportunities to recognize service members, instill esprit de corps, and solicit feedback in order to continue improving morale across the board.”
“Surveys are an important, yet confidential, method in doing so,” Holton said. She also said the benefits disparity is an unavoidable consequence of the mission being done under state active-duty authority.
Holton said the surveys “[allow] leadership teams to proactively address” problems, but the source who provided the survey results said task force leadership initially didn’t respond to the results or communicate a plan to address the complaints troops made. Internal leadership meetings “focused on the positives that people seem to like their [colleagues], Mexican food in the area, etc.,” the source said.
But seven hours after the Tribune and Military Times submitted questions to the agency asking what it had done to address the troops’ concerns, Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis, the operation’s commander, signed a policy memo relaxing the off-duty curfew, alcohol restrictions and distance limits on off-duty travel. Leaders communicating the changes to the troops said they were the result of members’ feedback in surveys — despite the surveys being completed more than a month ago.
The agency refused to provide the results of a similar survey sent to all Operation Lone Star troops on Jan. 3. State military officials are trying to block a public information request from Military Times and the Tribune for that information, claiming that releasing the results would put troops at risk and “have a chilling effect” on future survey participation.
Lives left behind
The responses illustrate the personal consequences of the short-notice, involuntary activation.
Most state active-duty missions are short-term emergency responses, such as the Texas Guard’s response to the 2021 winter storm or hurricanes in recent years. But Operation Lone Star is different — thousands of troops have been there involuntarily since last fall, and they’re likely to be there until they’re replaced with a fresh wave of troops this fall, according to planning documents.
“What strategic or tactical thought has there been toward the impact of [Operation Lone Star] on the morale and retention of the Guard?” one member asked. “I had [nine days’] notice to leave my wife and baby during an immensely stressful point in our marriage.”
Another echoed his concerns.
“[I had] 10 days to try and find a substitute who could manage my classes at work, make plans to keep my house in shape, prepare my family mentally and emotionally, and of course, pack myself,” the airman said. Troops who don’t report for the involuntary mission could be arrested, Texas officials have acknowledged.
Many of the troops on the mission arrived immediately following federal deployments and a separate state mobilization to help with hurricane relief in Texas and Louisiana, one airman said. Now, major life milestones are still on hold.
“Myself and others have been gone for what will be a year and a half … with mere days in between,” another airman said. “Weddings, home builds and starting [a] family have been put off for the time being, and [this mission] is grinding down what little resolve we have left.”
The mission has halted schooling and day jobs as well. One airman said they were taking a pay cut from their civilian job, and the Texas Guard’s hardship bonus pay wasn’t enough to make up their salary.
“We were rushed down here from our homes and families just to sit around for a month waiting on training [and] equipment (most of which we are still waiting on), without the proper infrastructure to support such a [massive] mobilization,” the airman said.
A college student bemoaned that the mission had delayed their graduation — and worried they “may have to restart my nursing program all over again even [though] I was supposed to graduate in December 2022.”
And one health care worker, exasperated that the Guard had indefinitely “plucked” them from their job amid the coronavirus pandemic, argued they were “lied to about the duration.”
“Whether or not you agree with the politics and morals of [Operation Lone Star], the best thing you could do to improve morale would be to shorten [deployments],” the member said. “I’ve spoken to very few people who plan on continuing their service in the Texas [National Guard], much less staying on [the border] any longer than they have to. Send people home.”
Meanwhile, problems stemming from the mission’s rapid expansion are alienating even the troops who support Abbott’s approach to securing the border.
One Guard member who reported enjoying “working in the field” to catch migrants also decried leadership’s “lack of answers [and an] unknown date to return to family and civilian career.”
“People [quit] school, [their] jobs, [their] relationships all because of the stress of not knowing when they can pick it back up or plan to start again,” the airman explained. “It’s unrealistic for the younger [airmen].”
Another service member, who thinks the operation isn’t tough enough on migrants, also demanded that senior leaders also “pay us correctly and give us actual [health] insurance.”
Other troops resented feeling like a number or a political pawn in Abbott’s 2022 reelection campaign. Abbott is facing multiple challengers from his right in the Republican primary on March 1 who have criticized him for not being tough enough on the border. Many of the mission’s critics have condemned its scale as a political ploy, despite record migration at the border.
“Members feel like political [pawns] and do not feel like their [issues] are being heard,” said one airman.
Another decried how the mission “feels like being used for a political agenda.”
“Most of us signed up to help Texas in times of need like hurricanes,” the Guard member said. “This doesn’t feel like we are helping any Texans besides the governor and his ability to say he has activated the [Guard] to the border.”
The mission’s shortcomings could exacerbate a deepening morale crisis in the Texas Guard.
“I support the mission and overall am glad to be part of it,” one Guard member said. “But morale issues are becoming critical and will get worse unless dramatic action is taken to get ahead of it.”
Following a string of suicides linked to the mission, there’s fear of future self-harm by members.
“I’m concerned with having members drinking without limits, knowing they have personal firearms [with them] and mental health struggles,” one airman explained. “With limited … access to mental health providers, and the rise in suicides on the Army side [of the mission], I feel we are doing nothing to prevent suicides coming to the 432nd.”
That airman called Operation Lone Star a “huge disappointment.”
“I never imagined members of the military would be treated so poorly[,] and I plan to leave the Air Guard after this because of how myself and others around me have been treated,” the member said.
Some respondents praised the effort and said they’d stay on as long as they could, despite the murky timeline and living with roommates or without a full kitchen. But more airmen indicated in the survey that Operation Lone Star will be their final mission in the Texas National Guard.
Military Times and the Tribune previously reported a recent trend of low retention numbers for the state’s Army Guard, while more troops leave critical fields like cyber warfare for the Air Guard as well.
Some are burnt out by the onslaught of missions and activations in recent years, from pandemic response to assistance in severe weather. Others worry their civilian lives have suffered too much.
According to one service member, multiple airmen had just returned from basic or technical training or a deployment, only to be pointed to the Mexico border during their first Guard drill back home.
“We’re going to lose a lot of good [airmen],” they said. “Why are we doing that to our members?!?!?!?”
Multiple people are bracing themselves to rebuild progress they’ve lost at their regular jobs when they return from the border. One airman, who called Operation Lone Star a “political mess between the federal and state government” now plans to separate from the Guard when their contract expires in 2023 after losing most of their clients from their civilian job.
“[Operation Lone Star] cares more about numbers than the impact on individuals and their families,” said one. “It does greater harm to our members than good by putting their families and own lives at risk for an unclear mission.”
Another said they hope other states learn from the mission’s troubles.
“We are disposable in the eyes of top leaders, from the governor on down,” declared the service member. “The leadership failures of this mission will be a case study for military leaders for years to come.”
José Luis Martínez contributed to this report.
This story comes from our KHOU 11 News partners at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.