On the bor­der, troops bat­tle low morale, wait for car­a­van

The News Tribune - - Nation & World - BY THOMAS GIB­BONS-NEFF, HE­LENE COOPER AND TAMIR KALIFA New York Times

BASE CAMP DONNA, TEXAS

Sgt. 1st Class Daniel Micek, a pla­toon sergeant with the 89th Mil­i­tary Po­lice Brigade, tore open the brown pack­ag­ing of his MRE on Thurs­day.

It was a chicken and noo­dle dish, one of the more sought-af­ter rations be­cause it came with Skit­tles. But from the cot out­side his pla­toon’s tent at the Army’s lat­est for­ward op­er­at­ing base, Micek could al­most see the bright or­ange and white roof of Whataburger, a fast-food utopia 8 miles away but off lim­its un­der cur­rent Army rules. The desert tan flatbed trucks at the base are for haul­ing con­certina wire, not food runs.

Such is life on the lat­est front where U.S. sol­diers are de­ployed. The midterm elec­tions are over, along with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s rafter-shak­ing ral­lies warn­ing that an ap­proach­ing mi­grant car­a­van of Cen­tral Amer­i­cans amounts to a for­eign “in­va­sion” that war­rants de­ploy­ing up to 15,000 ac­tive-duty mil­i­tary troops to the bor­der states of Texas, Ari­zona and Cal­i­for­nia.

But the 5,600 U.S. troops who rushed to the brown, dry scrub along the south­west bor­der are still go­ing through the mo­tions of an elab­o­rate mis­sion that ap­peared to be set into ac­tion by a com­man­der in chief de­ter­mined to get his sup­port­ers to the polls, and a Pen­tagon lead­er­ship un­able to con­vince him of its per­ils.

In­stead of foot­ball with their fam­i­lies on this Veter­ans Day week­end, sol­diers with the 19th Engi­neer Bat­tal­ion, fresh from Fort Knox, Ken­tucky, were painstak­ingly web­bing con­certina wire on the banks of the Rio Grande, just be­neath the McAl­lenHi­dalgo-Reynosa In­terna- tional Bridge.

Nearby, troops from Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Wash­ing­ton state were mak­ing sure a sick call tent was prop­erly set up next to their aid sta­tion. And a few miles away, Staff Sgt. Juan Men­doza was di­rect­ing traf­fic as his engi­neer sup­port com­pany from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, un­loaded mil­i­tary ve­hi­cles.

Come Thanks­giv­ing, they most likely will still be here.

Two thou­sand miles away, at the Pen­tagon, of­fi­cials pri­vately de­rided the de­ploy­ment as an ex­pen­sive waste of time and re­sources, and a mor- ale killer to boot.

Lead­ing up to the midterm vote Tues­day, the mil­i­tary an­nounced that the bor­der mis­sion would be called Op­er­a­tion Faith­ful Pa­triot. But De­fense Sec­re­tary Jim Mat­tis on Elec­tion Day told of­fi­cials to drop the name, and the Pen­tagon sent out a terse news re­lease a day later say­ing the op­er­a­tion was now sim­ply to be known as bor­der sup­port. The term “faith­ful pa­triot,” of­fi­cials said, had po­lit­i­cal over­tones.

A fi­nal cost es­ti­mate of the de­ploy­ment has not been made avail­able. But De­fense De­part­ment bud­get of­fi­cials fret that if the num­ber of troops sent to the bor­der does reach 15,000, the price tag could hit $200 mil­lion, with no spe­cific bud­get al­lo­ca­tion from which to draw.

The last time ac­tive­duty troops were sent to the bor­der was in the 1980s, to help with coun­ternar­cotics mis­sions. Since then, Trump’s pre­de­ces­sors have re­lied on the Na­tional Guard, which ar­rived with con­sid­er­ably less fan­fare than the con­voys of ve­hi­cles and tent cities that have sprung up in re­cent days.

The De­fense De­part­ment’s fis­cal 2019 bud­get had al­ready carved out funds for fight­ing the Is­lamic State group in Iraq and Syria, con­tin­u­ing the end­less war in Afghanistan and pre­par­ing for a po­ten­tial con­flict with a for­eign na­tion, such as China, Rus­sia, North Korea or Iran.

There has been no money set aside to com­bat the men, women and chil­dren who are bound for the U.S. bor­der, many of them flee­ing vi­o­lence or cor­rup­tion, nearly all seek­ing bet­ter lives. The troops are tasked with the same types of lo­gis­ti­cal, sup­port and even cler­i­cal jobs that Na­tional Guard sol­diers sent to the bor­der ear­lier this year are al­ready do- ing.

The mil­i­tary’s morale is­sue is al­most as wor­ri­some. The de­ploy­ment or­ders last un­til Dec. 15, mean­ing the troops will be on the bor­der over Thanks­giv­ing. They will have lit­tle to do be­yond pro­vid­ing lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, un­less Trump de­clares mar­tial law. The troops will not be en­forc­ing U.S. im­mi­gra­tion law – that would run afoul of the Posse Comi­ta­tus Act of 1878, un­less a spe­cial ex­cep­tion is made.

“When you give a sol­dier a real mis­sion, you have less of a morale prob­lem, even if it’s Christ­mas or Thanks­giv­ing,” said Rep. An­thony G. Brown, D-Md., a for­mer Army he­li­copter pi­lot who served in the Iraq War. “But when you send a sol­dier on a du­bi­ous mis­sion, with no mil­i­tary value, over Thanks­giv­ing, it doesn’t help morale at all.”

Two days af­ter the midterms, on Thurs­day, a pla­toon of Army engi­neers in Hi­dalgo, Texas, who were stretch­ing bands of con­certina wire on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande had ditched the body ar­mor. The de­ci­sion to wear only their uni­forms, can­teens, gloves and hel­mets was sim­ple: It was too hot to wear the ar­mored vests, and the sol­diers knew they didn’t need them.

Roughly 15 miles away, some 500 troops – a med­ley of med­i­cal units, mil­i­tary po­lice of­fi­cers and engi­neers – were set­tled into a rou­tine at Base Camp Donna. It was named af­ter the ad­join­ing Texas town, which Bor­der Pa­trol agents be­lieve is one of the most likely en­try points into the United States for the mi­grant car­a­van, should it ar­rive.

Wedged be­tween a four-lane high­way and the U.S.-Mex­i­can bor­der wall, the base is rem­i­nis­cent of those found in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s.

TAMIR KALIFA NYT

Army sol­diers eat MREs on Thurs­day at Base Camp Donna in Donna, Texas, among the bases be­ing set up along the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. “When you give a sol­dier a real mis­sion, you have less of a morale prob­lem, even if it’s Christ­mas or Thanks­giv­ing,” said Rep. An­thony G. Brown, D-Md., a for­mer Army he­li­copter pi­lot who served in the Iraq War. “But when you send a sol­dier on a du­bi­ous mis­sion, with no mil­i­tary value, over Thanks­giv­ing, it doesn’t help morale at all.”

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