Texas Guardsman Disappears in the Rio Grande

I have written about Operation Lone Star here and here. It is an exceedingly stupid mission, generated simply to secure an election. It is fundamentally flawed in so many ways. Chief among its problems is a lack of work for its about 6,500 Guardsmen/women. A close second is the lack of basic equipment. The soldiers lack first aid kits, ballistic vests, and helmets. They also lack federal benefits. If they are hurt or simply ill, they cannot seek Veterans Affairs Department medical care. They are not on federal orders, so they cannot go to the nearest Air Force base or Army post and see the on-post doctors. They must seek medical insurance like any state employee. But, unlike state employees, they have not been briefed on their medical insurance benefits. So, it is not surprising that many have joined a state employee union.

What If

But, the worst oversight surely is what if. In the Army, we would say what if the sh** hits the fan. What if a crisis occurs and a Guardsman is shot or passes out from heat exhaustion on some lonely ranch. Or, what if a Guardsman sees an Illegal Immigrant struggling in the water and jumps in to help. Anyone who knows the Guard knows 99% of Guardsmen will jump in despite being told not to. The reason most Guards guys join is that hero moment. That is a big part of the attraction. As one Guardsmen told me anonymously regarding Operation Lone Star:

“Despite being briefed not to help, we will always do the right thing and help even if it puts our lives in danger.”

Disappeared

Now, the worst has happened. An unidentified Guardsman did just that, he jumped in to help a struggling immigrant. It might have been a child or a woman. Guardsmen are not saints. But, that is what we do, we jump in to save folks. Anyone at state leadership, including the Governor, who does not know that is not paying attention. Now, that Guardsman has disappeared in the Rio Grande. See Army Times report here. The Rio Grande is very shallow in some parts, but in other parts, the water is quite deep, especially at this time of year.

The Texas Military Department, which has minimized the equipment shortages, the pay problems and the lack of genuine work, has issued a statement – anonymously as they always do – saying the Guardsmen has simply disappeared. He has not necessarily drowned. But, if he is missing, that is a big deal. The young man or woman is either AWOL or drowned. No, he has drowned. The TMD is wrong, again. One young Guardsman died doing what Guardsmen do everywhere, trying to save someone he never met.

If the young man or woman had died in the sandbox, his friends and family would know he died for something worthwhile. He would have died defending his country, as he understood his duty. But, to die to help one governor win re-election?? I want to know who will tell this young Guardsman’s family that he gave his life, so Gov. Abbott could win his next election.

No Sergeants Major for Operation Lone Star

Among the many odd things about Operation Lone Star is the absence of a Sergeant Major who actually visits the troops. Jim Betts, a retired E-9 in the Navy, knows something about what E-9’s do. In the US Army, the E-9 is the Sergeant Major. There is a SGM at command level from Battalion up through Army level in Washington, D.C. There is a top SGM in the Texas Guard assigned to Camp Mabry. SGM’s perform one critical function: ensuring the welfare and discipline of the individual soldier.

During my time in Iraq, I observed first-hand what happens when an army does not have a tradition of strong NCO’s. The Iraqi army had no tradition of strong, capable NCO’s.

And, at the top of the NCO food chain is the SGM. A SGM will generally visit every soldier and observe first-hand his/her discipline and equipment. If there are problems, a SGM will fuss at the NCO responsible. And, the SGM will report that deficiency to the Commander. The SGM is the Commander’s eyes and ears.

Master CPO Betts (Ret) is the father of one of the Texas Guardsmen deployed to the border. MCPO Betts says the SGM’s in the Texas Guard are not doing their jobs. They are not visiting and checking on the soldiers. See Texas Scorecard report here. Contrast that with my experience in the Texas Guard. No matter where my Infantry unit was, the SGM always found my soldiers. I would run into the Battalion SGM in the deepest darkest corners of Ft. Hood.

MCPO Betts says the soldiers are living in miserable conditions. When they first came to these long shuttered motels, they found dead roaches, dead rats and drug paraphernalia in the rooms. The soldiers who live in the trailers from tractor trailers are squeezed into very cramped quarters. They lack cold weather gear, first aid kits, Individual Body Armor (IBA), and helmets. They are sometimes shot at by the narco terrorists across the river. This problem is similar to the problem in the Viet Nam War. In that war, field grade officers rarely visited the soldiers in the bush. Never seeing the big cheese indicates their mission is not important. The worst thing you can do with a soldier is to ask him/her to risk their health and life for a mission that does not matter.

“Aren’t Doing Jack Shit”

And many soldiers are ding exactly that: nothing. As one soldier said, he is on duty two hours a day. Then he goes back to his quarters, drinks alcohol, and then does the same thing the next day.

I work probably two hours a day. I just go back to my room and drink. And then rinse and repeat. I’ve been doing this for four months,” one member of the Guard told TPM. “I really don’t have a problem with the mission. I think the execution was the issue, and the fact that we have way too many soldiers down at the border, and a lot of them aren’t doing jack shit.”

Guardsmen expect to make sacrifices protect their states and their country. But, to sacrifice your job, your family, your business to work two hours a day and drink is more than they can bear. Mental health issues are worsening. See Talking Point Memo here.

Radios

The other problem is equipment. Because the Guardsmen were activated not through an Army post, they have to rely on state owned property. But, the National Guard is just not set up to acquire enough equipment for 20,000 members of the Guard. The OLS soldiers even lack radios. They have to rely on cell phones – if the phone has service. There is a reason why the Army does not rely on cell phones. Service in rural areas is often non-existent. Try getting cell phone service in the middle of North Ft. Hood. Without radios, the Texas Guard is just one catastrophe away from a scandal.

No Sick Call

Remarkably, the Texas Guardsmen often do not have sick call. A long-time military tradition. Sick call is supposed to work like this: the soldier reports he has an illness. He is then sent to a clinic for a check-up. But, MCPO Betts says his son had strep throat last November. He could not go on sick call, because there was no sick call. Again, being on state orders, they have no access to U.S. military hospitals or clinics. Texas is asking the Guard to perform a mission it cannot support.

And, I have to say, as a Company Commander or Battalion Commander, there is no way I would tolerate no SGM checking on the troops. The lack of SGM visits suggest they did not activate enough SGM’s to get to everyone. It is time for some officers to start transferring to the IRR and protest this complete lack of command support. There is no reason for the absence of a SGM.

The problem for most of us is that when the Guardsmen start leaving the Guard, we will not have them the next time we see a Hurricane Harvey.

Operation Lone Star Fails Principles of Leadership

The Texas Military Department has activated at least 6500 members of the Texas National Guard, and perhaps as many as 10,000. Remarkably, they called some soldiers to active duty with only two or three days notice. In numerous news reports, Guardsmen have reported they are vastly under-employed. One Guardsman was quoted as saying all he has seen are fishermen. They call the mission Operation Lone Star. Since these soldiers were not activated through an Army post, they lack essential equipment. As recently as the freeze in early February, many soldiers lacked cold weather gear.

Operation Lone Star violates several principles of leadership, as taught by the U.S. Army. These principles were first developed in 1948 by World War II veterans. These principles ate battle tested. They are time tested.

“Know your soldiers and look out for their well-being”

The Texas Military Department (TMD) flunks this principle in a big way. Pulling Guardsmen from their lives for an under-employed mission with no foreseeable end date is the opposite of looking out for the well-being of part-time soldiers. Add to that, a miserable provision of Class II (personal equipment and clothing) and VIII (medical) items simply sets the soldiers up for failure, and encourages illness and injuries – again, the opposite of “looking out for their well-being.”

“Keep your subordinates informed”

Nothing is more fundamental than explaining to troops why a particular mission is important. If you cannot do that, you are not a leader, and the “mission” is not a mission. The bigger the mission and the more urgent the call-up, the greater the need for explanation. The TMD wholly flunks this critical principle of leadership. The TMD leadership has not explained to the Guardsmen and women why the mission is important. That omission may be due to the political window-dressing aspect of the mission.

“Ensure the task is understood, supervised, and accomplished”

One of the major issues with the Viet Nam War was the failure of field grade officers checking on their troops in the bush. Operation Lone Star was created by Gov. Abbott and MG Norris. It is their baby. They should be visiting troops and observing first-hand the quality of its execution. Those two non-leaders have compounded the leadership vacuum seen in the Viet Nam War ten fold. MG Norris and Gov. Abbott have only visited the border once since the activation became mandatory.

When the leader sends a soldier down range, s/he must be with them as much as possible. A good leader is always seen somewhere. The more complicated and controversial the mission, the more leaders need to be involved. Not less.

Texas Leaders Abuse the Texas National Guard

When I was called to active duty in 2003, we had exactly 5 days notice. But, our leadership had dropped heavy hints two months prior. And, that activation was classified. It was “super secret.” Still, we had those precious two months to change our lives.

Many soldiers in Operation Lone Star just had two days notice. In Sept, 2021, Gov. Abbott expanded what had been a  volunteer mission. He called for an additional 1500 troops in September. In October, he called for another 2500 Guardsmen. On Sept. 22, 2021, Tucker Carlson demanded the governor come on his show and explain why Gov. Abbott had not called out the Texas Guard. The Governor responded by calling up the equivalent of one Brigade. A brigade generally includes about 5,000 soldiers. Gov. Abbott went all in to protect our border.  Later, Gov. Abbott said they would have 10,000 Guardsmen on the border. That number comes near the size of an entire Division.

Yes, there is a problem on the border. Does it really need 10,000 Guardsmen?

He Sat on his Ass

What do those soldiers do? Many report they have simply sat around doing nothing. One unidentified soldier had his own business when he was called up. During the two wars in the 2000’s, the Guard and Reserve typically received 1-2 year’s notice for an activation. This young soldier with his own business received three day’s notice. Three days to drop his life and start a new one. He said that when he arrived at the border, he sat on his “ass” for days doing nothing. Then, he was sent home after three weeks. In other words, he was deactivated. But, as the Army Times explains, “. . .it may be too late to save his business. He says he still hasn’t found a new project and had to sell his company’s van to pay his mortgage, car payments and business loans.”

One member of the elite Air Force cyber operations unit said they are “sitting at a watch point for hours on end with their thumbs up their ass doing nothing,” a member of the cyber unit said.

Impacts Families Forever

Gov. Abbott gains some political cover with this activation. But, it impacts these families forever. Unlike every state activation since probably World War II, this activation was mandatory. The Texas Adjutant General treats this activation like a war zone activation. If a soldier does not appear when called, they are subject to arrest. Two soldiers committed suicide almost certainly due to the family hardships caused by this mandatory activation.

Lack Essential Equipment

Even today, many Guardsmen on the border lack body armor and helmets. Some lack ammunition. The Governor apparently wants to downplay the dangerous aspects of the mission. Narco-terrorists fire a few rounds at the Guardsmen every so often. See Army Times news report here.

Many Guardsmen still lack cold weather gear. That means they lack cold weather boots, parkas and underwear. When I went to Iraq in 2005, cold weather gear was a large part of my two duffel bags. Unlike the Federal call-ups during the 2000’s, the Texas Guard folks were not activated through a U.S. Army post. They have not had and still do not have access to the post facilities that issue everything from cold weather gear to IBA’s (Individual Body Armor). The Texas Guard is just not set up to maintain large stocks of personal gear.

Lack of Leadership at the Top

The Texas Adjutant General, MG Tracy Norris, ought to have warned the Governor about this. It is her job to tell him that his expectations are not realistic and may cause unnecessary harm to soldiers. When we take that oath, we assume there will be privation. But, hardship to work a psuedo-mission is incredibly deceptive. Worse, it will cause the retention rates for the Texas Guard to plummet. The Texas Guard may never recover from this blow to recruiting and retention. In the October – December, 2021 time frame, the retention rate dropped to 65%. Compare that to a normal 90-95% retention rate for the Army National Guard. But, as the complete lack of leadership has become apparent, even that low retention rate will surely drop much further.

In all my time in the Reserves and National Guard, we often said this like a mantra, “the civilian job comes first.” The Texas Guard has turned that motto on its head.

And, all this, so Gov. Abbot will win his next election.

Celebrating St. Stephen’s Day in New Orleans

​In Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day is a national holiday. It falls on Dec. 26, the day after Christmas. Officially, it celebrates the martyr St. Stephen. St. Stephen, says tradition, was stoned to death shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. There is another legend that says Stephen was hiding in a bush as a wren gave away his presence. Still other stories in Ireland say some Irish soldiers were sneaking up on some Vilikg raiders when a wren betrayed their presence.

In any event, in Ireland, St. Stephen’s Day is also known as the day of  the wren. On St. Stephen’s Day, a group of young men, dressed to look like birds, would parade around the town a dead wren on a stick. They approach various houses asking for a donation. When the accumulate enough money, they hold a party. This custom dates back hundreds of years, perhaps to pre-Christian times. See Irish Central website here for more information.

The Irish in New Orleans celebrated St. Stephen’s Day the way the Crescent City celebrated most events, they held a fair at the Armory Hall to raise money for the Sisters of Charity Orphanage for young girls.[1] The Irish also held a fair for the building of St. Alphonsus on St. Stephen’s Day.[2] Mass was held on St. Stephen’s Day.[3]

Notes:

[1] New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Dec. 25, 1851, p. 2, col. 2; New Orleans Daily True Delta, Dec. 26, 1850, p. 2, col. 2.

[2] New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Dec. 25, 1856, p. 1, col. 1

[3] The Louisiana Democrat (Alexandria, Louisiana), Dec. 22, 1880, p. 3, col. 2

This Generation Has Heroes, Too

I first wrote this for Veterans Day in 2009.  On Veterans Day, we note the spirit of service. Here are some examples:

The Ft. Hood 13

Today comes another Veteran’s Day.  Many of us recall a grandfather who served or an uncle who endured. The 13 who were killed at Ft. Hood exemplify the hundreds of thousands who have endured in this generation’s two wars.

CW2 (Ret) Cahill was killed at the age of 62.  Retired, he came back to Ft. Hood to serve those deploying and returning.  When I went to Iraq in 2005, many of those appearing with me at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina were retirees who volunteered to come back to active service and lend a hand.

After retiring as a major with service in the National Guard, CPT Gaffaney persisted for three years in his attempts to return to the Guard as a psychiatric nurse, his civilian occupation.  Hampered by a hearing deficit, he pushed to serve.  He finally returned for a second career as a Reserve officer.  When I reported to Ft. Jackson in 2005, we had one Lieutenant-Colonel, who pushed and pushed for two weeks to be sent to Iraq.  He had diabetes.  He swore that his meds could be obtained in Iraq.  But, the medical folks at Ft. Jackson did not believe him and would not let him go.

Iraq, 2005

When I was in Iraq in 2005-06, I went on a mission to visit some significant Iraqi officials.  On that convoy was a young female NCO.  She had graduated from college right after 9/11 with an engineering degree.  She joined the Army as an enlisted person and became an intelligence analyst, a very good one.  Here she was going outside the wire to collect intelligence.  She could have been anywhere that day, but she chose to be in Iraq, risking IED’s and more to collect critical information first hand.

The Colonels

In 2005, the large group of us, some 100 of us, were sent to California after Ft. Jackson.  We were to marry up with our Civil Affairs units and conduct train.  We had seven “full bird” Colonels in our group.  A sharp, able bunch.  The Civil Affairs brigade called them to a meeting.  The brigade told the Colonels, ” we have some good news for you, we do not need you and you can go home.”  The Colonels responded, “no, you called us from our civilian jobs, you must take us.  We are here to serve and we will serve.”  One or two had contacts at the Pentagon.  They pressured the Civil Affairs Brigade to take them and put them to work.  They refused to be sent home.  All seven served their tours with distinction.

Basic Trainees

I served as Commander of a drill sergeant battalion in 2007.  I could not help but notice how many fine young people were volunteering for service during a time of two wars.  Today’s soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors accept the same risks their grandfathers and fathers accepted.  A couple of the drill sergeants mentioned in briefings that they had to respect the young soldiers joining now in time of war.

Pres. Obama said in a Veterans Day speech, 2009: “. . .  here is what you must know: Your loved ones endure throughout the life of our nation.  Their memory wil be honored in the places they lived and by the people they touched. Their life’s work is our security, and the freedom that we all too often take for granted. Every evening that the sun sets on a tranquil town; every dawn that a flag is unfurled; every moment that an American enjoys life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — that is their legacy.”

When I entered the military in the 1980’s, older citizens would question our generation.  Would they serve as the “Greatest Generation” served in the 1940’s?  Yes, they have, we have, over and over.

Thank a vet today for his/her service.

May We be Worthy of Our Young Marines

Back in the 90’s, I recall folks, pundits and the like, asking of the kids of the time would step up the way prior generations did in WW II and even in the Viet Nam War. Folks doubted the kids, spoiled it seemed, would step up. I was in the Texas National Guard at the time and had no doubts they would step up. America’s youth was already participating and sacrificing for their part-time job in the armed forces. Starting in 2001, those kids, born in the 1980’s and 90’s stepped up in a big way. They are still stepping up. I was Battalion Commander of a drill Sergeant unit in 2006 and 2007. The Drill Sergeants scaled back their harassment during the two wars. The Sergeants felt that folks who enlisted voluntarily derived some extra respect. They did deserve some extra respect.

Young Marines

In a dusty Kabul airport, 11 Marines, one soldier and one Navy Corpsman were blown to bits by a fanatic suicide bomber. Those kids were as young as the war itself. LCPL Rylee McCollum was 20 years old. Two Marines in their dress uniform knocked on the door of LCPL McCollum’s parents at 0330 in the morning to tell them about their son. That dreaded knock.

Maxton Soviak grew up in northern Ohio playing football. His sister, Marilyn, said his death left a Maxton sized hole in the lives of those who knew him. Maxton was a Corpsman, or Navy medic. He graduated from high school in 2017. His football coach said everyone looked to Maxton in tough situations. He was passionate, energetic. He held nothing back.

Nicole Gee was promoted to Sergeant 24 days before her last day in uniform. Just days before that last day, she posted a picture of herself holding an Afghan baby. She said, “I love my job.” She was at the airport, escorting women and children to freedom and safety, when she was killed.

One in Ten

These were America’s best. Only one in ten kids qualifies for the Army. And, once they are in, they are scrutinized, harassed and pressed over and over. These boys and girls become young men and women within days, weeks.

The mission at the Kabul airport is to process Americans and Afghans. For the first time in over a decade, soldiers must now get on the ground, out of our armored vehicles and talk face-to-face with Afghans and possible terrorists. The soldiers can feel the breath of the folks they are talking to. Thirteen died. More were wounded. But, the mission continues. Those young, brave boys must still face the elephant. The CENTCOM commander, Gen. Kenneth McKenzie says in the end, “there’s no substitute for a young man or woman standing up there conducting a search of that person before we let him in” [to the airport]. The next day after the blast, other young Marines, soldiers and Corpsmen were back at it, searching and escorting. 

War has not changed. There is never a substitute for a young man or woman who is willing to stand up there doing their duty. Thank God we still have young men and women who believe our country is worth that devotion. Let us hope that we continue to be worthy of their devotion.