Southwest Border mission
by Maj. Todd Harrell
JFHQ-WV Public Affairs Office
In May of 2006, President George W. Bush authorized Operation Jump Start, an initiative to send National Guard Soldiers to augment the United States Border Patrol. West Virginia National Guard members were sent to the border town of Santa Teresa, N.M. to conduct operations. Task Force Mountaineer members were on the front line, posting entry identification teams at critical locations along 60-miles of border and serving as liaisons between the Border Patrol and National Guard. SANTA TERESA, N.M. – Sgt. Jessica Homeres, whose mother emigrated from the Phillipines in 1973, initially saw little problem with people illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. “Who are we to prevent them from having a better life?” she said. But Homeres’ outlook quickly changed after the West Virginia National Guard sent her to New Mexico to help the U.S. Customs & Border Patrol stem the tide of illegal crossings from Mexico into the U.S. “Being down there has really opened my eyes to what is happening,” Homeres said. President sends troops to border With nearly 2,000 miles of U.S-Mexico border to secure, it is difficult for Border Patrol agents to prevent people from crossing the border unlawfully. In May, President Bush authorized Operation Jump Start, an initiative to send up to 6,000 National Guard Soldiers from across the country to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California to augment the Border Patrol. Homeres is one of about 100 West Virginia Soldiers and Airmen deployed, as part of Task Force Mountaineer, to Santa Teresa, N.M., where New Mexico, Texas and Mexico converge. Santa Teresa is believed to be a major thoroughfare for the trafficking of drugs and illegal aliens into the U.S. Task Force Mountaineer members are on the front line, posting entry identification teams at critical locations along a 60-mile area of responsibility and serving as liaison between the Border Patrol and National Guard. Working with the Border Patrol, Soldiers witness firsthand the challenges Border Patrol agents face. “Once you get down here and see who and what is coming across, you realize how short the Border Patrol is on manpower. It tells you how much you need to be here,” said Staff Sgt. Philip Smith, a mechanic with the 1257th Transportation Company. For Pfc. Christopher Vandergrift, a supply specialist with the 115th Engineer Company, the decision was easy. “I wanted to come down here and help make a difference. I see everyone else going on deployments. I thought I might take a hand in it.” According to Jose Cruz, assistant border patrol agent in charge at Santa Teresa, the agency appreciates the Guard’s assistance. “The West Virginia National Guard has given us a shot in the arm to provide better security of the border and gain operational control of the area,” Cruz said. “They have become an integral part of our strategy. The success is immeasurable.”
The Guard mission
Monument Three, often referred to as “Mont 3,” is the busiest of the entry identification points manned by West Virginia Soldiers. The small hilltop site overlooks Juarez, Mexico; Sunland, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas. A simple fence, posts straightened by strands of barbed wire, is all that separates the countries. Challenges at Mont 3 are evident. In one recent evening, 51 illegal entries were thwarted by Guard members and the Border Patrol. It’s a hi-tech game of cat-and-mouse, 24 hours per day. When electronic sensors are triggered, the Border Patrol notifies Soldiers of the breach. Using binoculars by day and an array of technologies at night, Guard members scan the border for signs of illegal entry. Once movement is detected, Guard members guide the Border Patrol to interdict. Soldiers believe most illegal crossings are people simply looking for work or to reunite with family already in the U.S. Illegals generally pose no personal threat to the Soldiers. Pfc. James Patterson, a 3664th Maintenance Company mechanic working one of the many EIT sites, tried hard to reconcile his feelings about the mission. “I feel kinda sorry for the immigrants trying to make a better life for themselves, but there’s a right way and a wrong way.” Often, the greatest danger is to illegal immigrants themselves. The southwest border provides a natural deterrent for many attempting to cross. Smugglers, known as “coyotes,” hired to guide people across the border often abandon their clients, leaving them victim to the harsh desert climate. The presence of the Guard helps deter such tragedies, Cruz said. “Indirectly, they’re saving lives.” Cruz feels the relationship between the troops and the border agents is symbiotic. “It’s like getting more Border Patrol Agents assigned,” he said. “They are a part of us, we’re one. They are afforded the same respect as our own agents, and the comradery between the Border Patrol and National Guard is wonderful.” Despite the apprehensions, many Soldiers believe that it’s not only illegal immigrants that justify the presence of the Guard. “I see,” Homeres said, “there’s more of a drug trafficking issue.” Border Patrol agents have long known about drugs flowing illegally into the U.S. and see the Guard as a force multiplier. “The mere presence of the Guard intimidates them [drug traffickers]. Through our joint effort with the Guard, we have smugglers back on their heels, guessing and looking for other ways around us,” Cruz said. Smugglers use a variety of tactics to test the border. Among the green scrub grass and sandy outcroppings directly across the border from Mont 3, sits a small guard tower used to observe U.S. surveillance teams. Guard members are watched by those looking for entry into the United States and understand that each crossing attempt may be a test of reaction time, or perhaps a diversion for other attempts. Soldiers know that they have prevented hundreds of illegal aliens and tons of drugs from reaching U.S. streets.
Impact – Soldiers and mission
Cruz knows that it’s hard to measure the Guard’s impact on border security operations. What is evident, he said, is that there are crossings and drug activity than prior to the Guard’s arrival. Guard members also know they are making a difference, but with harvest season for drugs approaching, they’re quick to point out that the mission is far from over. While Soldiers feel good about stopping the flow of drugs and illegal aliens into the U.S., border patrol duty comes with added benefits. For many Soldiers, it gives them relevant experience to take back to their civilian careers. “Border Patrol trainees spend three to four months training, but we’re right here, working beside them,” Homeres said. “I can put down that I have worked with the Border Patrol. They’ll see that I have more experience as opposed to a regular college student.” A Guard medic from the 1092nd Engineer Battalion also sees leadership opportunities in the Jump Start deployment. Staff Sgt. Teresa Miller is encouraged by training she believes is relevant to the Soldiers’ wartime mission. “It [deployment] gives them a chance to lead and be responsible, an opportunity to work that provides challenges, a chance to grow,” Miller said. According to Miller, NCO’s have the opportunity to work at least one rank and position higher than normal. Homeres agreed. “I’ll have a better heads up on how to be a team leader. This experience also prepares me to deal with Soldier care issues,” she said. Cruz reinforced the benefits of the collaboration. He said that Guard member skill sets transfer very well to the border patrol mission, and work on the border may help Guard members with their wartime mission. Spc. Thomas Mulcahy, a cavalry scout with 1/150th Armored Reconnaissance Squadron, concurred. “I look at what I’ve seen in Iraq and pray it never comes here. I’m putting the skills I’ve been taught to use, but there’s still more to learn.” That’s why the National Guard is relevant to the border patrol mission. Mulcahy brings Iraqi Freedom deployment experience to the mission. Homeres, a college student, brings classroom knowledge and an understanding of the immigrant’s viewpoint to the border security debate. Other Soldiers protecting the border bring local law enforcement experience to the mission. Lt. Gen. H. Stephen Blum, chief of National Guard Bureau, says often that protecting the homeland is the National Guard’s top priority. West Virginia Soldiers on the border are doing that despite the challenges associated with the mission. A Soldier standing point overlooking Monument 3 summed up the Guard’s mission. “We’ve made our presence known, and we’re going to stand firm.”