Along the Border

Guard members provide support along Southwest border

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Guard members provide support along Southwest border

Story by Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy
Video by Tech. Sgt. Steven Schwach
National Guard Bureau

More than 2,200 National Guard members are on duty supporting U.S. Customs and Border Protection along the Southwest border throughout California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

“Us being here allows for more of the [U.S Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection] agents to be out in the field,” said Army Sgt. Delaccye Blake, a combat engineer with the Texas Army Guard’s B Company, 172nd Brigade Engineer Battalion.

Called Operation Guardian Support, that assistance includes monitoring surveillance camera feeds, inspecting commercial vehicles entering from Mexico and providing infrastructure and maintenance support.

Blake and other members of his unit have been working out of the McAllen Border Patrol station since coming on duty in April, building and repairing key pieces of equipment, such as trailers and security camera mounts, as well as other behind-the-scenes functions.

“We’ve helped with property accountability, we handle the gate security operations,” said Blake, describing other tasks they’ve taken on.

That assistance comes at a critical time, said Border Patrol officials.

“The Border Patrol is facing a critical shortage in personnel,” said Casey Marchmont, operations officer with the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector in Texas. “Any relief that supplements non-enforcement duties helps secure the border.”

Because of Guard members’ efforts, 55 Border Patrol agents have returned to enforcement duties in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, said Marchmont. Other sectors have had similar numbers return to enforcement duties.

In Brownsville, Texas, Guard members have been assisting customs agents with X-ray systems that scan incoming vehicles – including commercial trucks – as they’re driven through the inspection lane. Since Guard members have come on duty, scan rates have increased to 81 percent of vehicles transiting through the Brownsville Port of Entry, said customs officials. Prior to assistance from the Guard, that rate was 32 percent.

While many serving along the border come from the four border states, Guard members from throughout the country have been supporting OGS, with some coming from as far away as Maine.

Army Sgt. Shawn Foshee, a helicopter mechanic with the Oklahoma Army National Guard’s B Company, 3rd Battalion, 140th Aviation Regiment, said he had no idea what to expect when he and a team from his unit were called up to go to the Texas – Mexico border.

“I didn’t know what to expect for living conditions, working conditions,” he said. “I packed way too much stuff, just to be prepared for anything.”

Foshee – part of a team flying Border Patrol personnel on missions along the border – said some of the activities Border Patrol watches for were unexpected.

“I didn’t realize human trafficking was such a huge thing and where [drug cartels] make a good portion of their money,” he said. “To me, that’s something pretty important, if we can get down here and help [stop that].”

As an aircraft maintainer, Foshee’s part in that includes making sure the aircraft are ready to fly at a moment’s notice.

“There are so many small things that can make an aircraft not airworthy,” he said. “The maintainers have to keep them up for the pilots to do their missions.”

Though it may be behind-the-scenes work, Foshee said he feels he’s contributing to the overall support mission.

“I feel like I have a big part in it,” he said. “It’s not the glorious part. You’re not out there catching people smuggling drugs or people trying to cross illegally, but without [the maintainers] here [the aviation missions to deter] that wouldn’t happen.”

While out on those flying missions Guard aircrews may be piloting the aircraft, but it’s Border Patrol agents in the back of the aircraft directing things.

“They’ll get phone calls, texts and [radio] messages from [agents] on the ground,” said Army 2nd Lt. Liliana Chavez-Uribe, a helicopter pilot with the Texas Army Guard’s B Company, 114th Aviation Regiment. “From there, they tell us where to go, because they’re usually more familiar with the area than we are. We just make sure we give them a good hover so they can do their job.”

For many Guard members, integrating with both Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection has been a smooth process.

“They came and welcomed us like we were just family they hadn’t seen in a long time at a family reunion,” said Blake. “It’s like a second family.”

Part of the ease of integration, and feeling of family not seen in a while, stems from an ongoing working relationship.

In 2006 Guard members were called to the border in large numbers as part of Operation Jump Start. Up to 6,000 Guard members at a time were on duty throughout the Southwest operating in similar support functions. By the time Jump Start wrapped up two years later, more than 30,000 Guard members in units from all 54 states, territories and the District of Columbia had served in rotations along the border.

Guard members have provided continued limited support to Customs and Border Protection since then and were called out in greater numbers by presidential order earlier this year.

For Army Staff Sgt. Gabriel Garza, a platoon sergeant with the Texas Army Guard’s Company A, 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment, the focus is on getting the task done.

“Whatever the Border Patrol supervisors may need, I try and get that squared that away with our higher-ups and get individuals into the slots of jobs that need to done,” he said, describing his day-to-day focus.

And the Soldiers under him are just as up for the challenge, Garza said.

“The troops are motivated,” he said. “Most are excited to be on the mission. [By enlisting] we all volunteered. We’ll do everything we can possible to complete the mission.”