LAREDO, Texas - Army National Guard members have served along the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas since 2012 providing aviation support to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with plans to continue serving for the foreseeable future.
Soldiers, from numerous states across the country, collaborate in this unique mission, known as Operation Phalanx, to provide aviation assets in support of CBP alongside Office of Air and Marine, Texas Department of Public Safety, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other local, state and federal agencies with operations along the international border. They are prepared to fly their UH-72 Lakota helicopters regardless of day or time, ready to deploy as requested by CBP.
"These UH-72 helicopters, which are bought and paid for by our taxpayers, are the perfect platform to perform this mission," said Brig. Gen. Patrick Hamilton, Domestic Operations commander, Texas National Guard. "They provide a tremendous operational flying experience for future state and federal missions."
The standard crew consists of three Guardsmen, two pilots and a sensor operator, and one Border Patrol agent observer per aircraft. The ability to combine the agent with the advanced UH-72 helicopter helps provide effortless support to border patrol agents working on the ground.
"This aircraft's capabilities make it a unique asset in the Army aviation inventory and perfect for this mission," said a pilot with the Texas National Guard, who has been on the mission for six months. "It has a communications package that none of the other Army aircraft have that allows us to communicate on secure Border Patrol and other law enforcement channels. This communication capability, along with a high-powered searchlight and cameras with infrared capabilities, make it the total package."
On any given flight, these aircrews can support CBP and other agencies with the identification and observation of undocumented immigrants, the seizure of illegal narcotics, and in emergency situations, conduct search and rescue operations and casualty evacuation. They also assist law enforcement in vehicle pursuits in order to prevent dangerous high-speed pursuits in populated areas.
"The amount of assistance is invaluable," said assistant chief patrol agent Dan Ramos. "They have provided us an extra level of safety."
The partnership helps strengthen the relationship between both agencies.
"We are proud to work with National Guardsmen across the nation to support Customs and Border Protection," said Hamilton. "We have a great relationship with all of our partner agencies on the border, making Operation Phalanx the perfect mission for National Guard Soldiers."
While providing an invaluable asset to CBP, the Soldiers assigned to Operation Phalanx also benefit in their military and professional careers while on mission. Pilots, sensor operators, maintenance personnel and operations support personnel gain valuable experience in the demanding and constantly changing environment on the international border, making them invaluable assets at their home units when they return to their respective states.
"Pilots gain unprecedented flight hours flying relevant missions every day, sensor operators rapidly adapt and learn how to maximize the capabilities of our cameras to assist CBP, maintenance personnel become experienced at inspections most states wouldn't see for years to come, and flight operations personnel successfully manage relationships with numerous agencies and accountability for flight crews," said a Nebraska National Guard Soldier, who has been on this mission for more than a year. "It's a fantastic opportunity for Soldiers to serve on a domestic mission with important implications, working alongside their counterparts from other states."
Additionally, the Soldiers are also proud to serve in positions that allow them to support the integrity of their country and its borders on a daily basis.
"This mission is incredibly rewarding, because we know we're making an important difference, specifically to the Border Patrol agents on the ground, but also to our country as a whole," said the Guard member. "When we signed up to join the National Guard we wanted to make a positive impact on our country and in our communities, and this mission allows us to do that every day."
The National Guard has provided support along the U.S.-Mexico border in various ways and on numerous occasions since 1917, most recently providing constant support to CBP since 2010. From 2010 to 2012, the National Guard provided CBP ground support, switching to an aviation based mission in 2012.