No Combat Pay. Little Electricity. Just Waiting for the Caravan.
Posted November 10, 2018 12:55 p.m. EST
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 McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International 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 morale 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 active-duty 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 doing.
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.” The soldiers, by and large, shy away from talking about the political winds that sent them to the border.
But in the last furious days before the midterm elections, photographs of a group of soldiers, clad in full military kit and flak jackets, were presented at Trump rallies and shown in the news media. Trump himself lauded the stringing up of “beautiful barbed wire” at a rally in Montana.
Still, there is political theater and there is real life.
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. And some had already suffered heat exhaustion, just days into their new mission.
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.
As it was at the bases in those early war zones, electricity at Base Camp Donna is scarce except to power lights and communications gear. In the last several days, the soldiers installed a small shower tent. Men and women have set hours for bathing. Permitted shower length: seven minutes. There is no mess hall, just the brown, prepackaged MREs. Military police officers patrol the perimeter at night, armed with handguns. The tents sleep 20 soldiers and have no electricity or air-conditioning. Phone charging is relegated to a few generators that power the spotlights around the living area.
Capt. Lauren Blanton, who oversees logistics for the base, is caught between monitoring the influx of equipment and troops and ensuring that her facility is livable, with enough amenities so the troops living there can call home.
“I want to talk to my kid too,” she said.
The Army is setting up another outpost in an abandoned furniture store in nearby Weslaco and is eyeing a spot in Brownsville — all in an effort to shore up the entry points with, so far, hundreds of miles of concertina wire.
Unlike in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, the troops do not receive extra combat pay. Nor is there hostile fire pay, since the troops will not be interacting with the migrants.
Mattis, the defense secretary, has long argued against politicizing the military. For the entirety of his nearly two years at the Pentagon’s helm, he has sought to shield the country’s 1.2 million active-duty troops from the political forces that have plagued other agencies. In August, on a trip to Brazil, Mattis warned of the dangers of a military that is viewed as supporting one candidate or another.
Putting troops at the border to protect against what Trump deemed a threat, in his rallying cry for the midterms, has put Mattis’ views about politicizing the military on a collision course with the president. That clash comes as Mattis’ relationship with Trump has deteriorated sharply over the last year.
Last month, the president accused Mattis of being a Democrat. Trump has also chafed at what he perceives as the Defense Department’s slow-walking of his many proposals, from holding a military parade to banning transgender troops to putting into place a Space Force.
Officially, Pentagon leaders said their duty was to follow the orders of the commander in chief, not to tell him how he can deploy U.S. troops.
“It’s not my role to make those assessments,” the Army secretary, Mark T. Esper, said in an interview Wednesday. “We all recognize that one of the many missions of the military is defense of the homeland and security of our borders.” The border troops are just the latest example of the White House pushing a mission that the Pentagon has resisted.
In late October, the Department of Homeland Security sent a memo to the Pentagon with a series of formal requests for support in handling immigrants at the southern border, including the caravan on its way from Central America, according to two senior administration officials.
Among the requests, issued at the White House’s behest, were that troops deployed to the border be armed, prepared for direct contact with the migrants and ready to operate under rules for the use of force to be set by the Defense Department.
When Defense Department officials replied the same day, on Mattis’ orders, they rejected those requests and referred the Department of Homeland Security to the White House, the officials said. The Defense Department viewed the requests as inappropriate and legally treacherous, potentially setting up soldiers for violent encounters with migrants.
For Mattis, “you only get to fall on your sword once,” said Paul Eaton, a retired major general and veteran of the Iraq War, who is now a senior adviser to VoteVets.org, a progressive veterans advocacy group.
“You pick your fight,” Eaton said. “This was a case of, ‘We will do this, but I will protect the U.S. military and ensure the rules of engagement are appropriate.'”
Defense Department officials said the tasks by the troops at the border were the best compromise Mattis could reach. The Pentagon agreed to other requests for help, including sending supplies, setting up tents and providing transportation as needed.
“A wasteful deployment of overstretched Soldiers and Marines would be made much worse if they use force disproportional to the threat they face,” tweeted Martin Dempsey, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “They won’t.”
Back at the border, near the Hidalgo bridge, two soldiers squeezed into the cab of an armored front-end loader, its engine idle.
They had spent the morning jamming engineer stakes into the ground as pillars for the new fence. Now, the soldiers were enjoying the truck’s air-conditioning, watching camera crews interviewing their colleagues, and spitting a steady stream of sunflower seeds out the open window.
Hours later and 15 miles away, rain was in the forecast as night fell upon Base Camp Donna. Some soldiers slowly began digging a trench outside their tents, to keep water from pooling around their cots and their feet in the coming hours.
Others shuffled to port-a-potties and foot-powered sinks to shave and brush their teeth. A new tranche of troops who arrived just hours earlier were unloading their bags, bringing them to their cots in a quiet march.