In 2021, more than 4,000 Guards from 20 states were sent to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border alongside Customs and Border Protection personnel. The operation was assembled by a combination of 34 distinct Guard units that had no prior relationship and whose headquarters were under-equipped and understaffed.
The operation was considered wayward from the beginning and The Army Times in their article “Death, drugs and a disbanded unit: How the Guard’s Mexico border mission fell apart” reports the story of the 110th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade Headquarters known as Task Force Phoenix and how their mission probably did more harm than good.
Here are just some of the findings – mostly alarming – the Army Times reported.
- The void
Initially, the troops were put in a Title 32 status by the Trump administration, which meant they could participate in law enforcement if requested by civilian authorities.
However, President Joe Biden canceled the authorization in February and most of the Guard forces either went home or transitioned to Title 10, meaning they could not participate in law enforcement due to the Posse Comitatus Act.
As Title 10 troops the guards were assigned to man 24-hour lookout sites, where if they saw any suspicious activity they had to call Border Patrol agents. Most of the sites consisted of just two soldiers in the front seat of a borrowed vehicle, peering through binoculars. For several months they didn’t even have night vision and received them 10 months after requesting the NVG, as reported by The Army Times.
“[My soldiers] turned the lights on the vehicle, and stare[d] into the darkness around them,” vented the officer.
More than one incident was reported where the soldiers were found sleeping on duty – unable to see anything or do anything other than pick up a radio.
- Alcohol and Drug Abuse
When troops weren’t on duty, most were at hotels in remote locations. They had few opportunities for recreation and were not allowed to have personal vehicles or unauthorized guests in their hotels, according to policy documents reviewed by Army Times.
The isolation led to 34 cases of mental health issues, as reported by TF Phoenix, and also contributed to a serious alcohol and drug abuse problem among the troops.
One officer argued that the soldiers were flush with cash and ripe for trouble — many had no expenses and few productive outlets for their money. Leading to at least two DUI car crashes, fights between NCOs, a senior NCO passed out behind the wheel, and alcohol-involved sexual assaults.
The situation escalated to a point where leaders had to purchase breathalyzers to keep at the hotels and instituted a new alcohol policy, limiting troops to two drinks.
In June alone, at least 19 soldiers received non-judicial punishment for alcohol-related incidents, according to military justice reports.
But alcohol was not banned for the task force until two soldiers died in alcohol-related incidents between July and September.
Apart from alcohol, Illicit drugs, including cocaine and fentanyl, also appeared in TF Phoenix’s drug tests, and three soldiers were arrested in May for possession of illegal drugs, according to military justice reports.
Most of the shocking incidents, including the three deaths and most of the misconduct incidents, occurred in Task Force Southeast stationed in McAllen, Texas.
This was one of the several battalion-level headquarters that reported to TF Phoenix.
TF Southeast was responsible for eight subordinate companies and a reinforced Puerto Rican platoon, totaling more than 1,000 troops, far-stretching the already understaffed headquarters – some key personnel, such as the medical officer, left mid-deployment.
According to Army doctrine, a brigade engineer battalion typically has only five subordinate companies, plus a more robust headquarters company.
Natividad also confirmed that the TF Southeast staff did not deploy with enough resources to adequately control its troops, and the absence of staff did lead to the death of a soldier.
In August, Sgt. Kellice Armstrong, a father of two, died of COVID-19, alone in his hotel room. The medical officer – brigade physician’s assistant – was in El Paso, Texas, more than 600 miles up the Rio Grande, and only treated Armstrong through the phone.
According to The Army Times, the sites assisted approximately 15% of the Border Patrol’s apprehensions in fiscal 2021 — less than 250,000 of the 1.66 million, raising questions about their efficiency.
Yet, DoD has authorized 3,000 troops to remain on mission until Oct. 1, 2022 – it is unknown if the mission will be prolonged. One officer, though, said he wants to see the mission end, though he won’t get his hopes up.
“It’s much easier to fund 3,500 troops to go do fuck-all in the desert than it is to pass [immigration reform].”