LAS CRUCAS, N.M. - Another day on watch over the United States' border with Mexico dawns temperate and fresh. For the Soldiers of Task Force Arkansas, as they are known by their Joint Task Force Commanders and the agents of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, it is another operational day. Like many days for the teams that man the entry identification team (EIT) sites, it begins by "drilling the checklist" or checking and securing materials to ensure they are ready for what lies ahead.
"Batteries, [food], optics, vehicle [maintenance] and [communications] checks," and the list goes on as the Soldiers verbalize each item packed for the operation to carry them through the next 24 hours. The teams rotate on the EIT sites every 24 hours. The remoteness of the sites scattered throughout the New Mexico desert make it more imperative that the Soldiers go prepared.
"We have radios to contact our command center and the Border Patrol station, but it's not like you can just run down the street if you forgot something. Once you get out there you kind of have to make due for 24 hours," said 2nd Lt. Brian Inman of Fayetteville, one of the officers who coordinates manning for the sites operating from Las Crucas. "The sites are covert, so we only change the teams once a day to minimize the traffic through the desert. This helps ensure the site is not compromised and reduce its effectiveness to the overall operation," Inman added. "We've been operating out here for about six weeks now, and we assisted the Border Patrol by directing them to apprehend 160 individuals already."
As the teams move out in their Humvees to relieve their colleagues, one might ask if the vehicles are merely part of the standard equipment for these Soldiers or a requirement for the mission. The answer, the sites are only accessible by strong four-wheel drive vehicles like the Army's Hummvee. The 30 or so mile trek through the rough terrain of the New Mexico desert makes you wonder how anyone could survive on foot through the area.
Sgt. Jay Sanders, of Hot Springs, Spc. Matthew Bealer, of Arkadelphia, and 2nd Lt. Inman relieve the team on duty and take responsibility for the site designated only as call sign "Bravo-2". The mountain top site is perched on the edge of a rock outcropping some 1,000 feet high. The small outpost is covered with camouflage netting to blend in with the cactus, yucca bushes and rock. The netting also provides a bit of shade from the bright New Mexico sun. The position of the site high above the desert floor allows the Soldiers a look-down vantage point to monitor activity below.
"Our location here enables us to look down on what's going on and direct the Border Patrol agents right to things they may not be able to see at ground level," said Sanders, peering through a pair of binoculars at the wide expanse of desert below. "We had one instance a few weeks ago where a car stopped on the highway over there. Three people got out and started running through the valley. I called Border Patrol on the radio and they responded to the location we gave them. The car was already gone, but we were able to direct them right in to the people in the desert because we could follow their movements from up here."
Each EIT site can monitor approximately 20 square miles of desert utilizing binoculars, long range telescopic sites and thermal imagery sighting systems for night time detection. Additionally, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has hundreds of unmanned electronic sensors scattered across the desert region to monitor any kind of movement.
"It's hard to continuously scan the desert, so we take turns on the optics in two hour shifts to give your eyes a rest," said Bealer. "The Border Patrol also gets frequent readings off of a sensor and calls us to confirm if we see anything in the area. They have been really good to work with and provided us a lot of information on the landmarks and terrain features they use to designate locations out here."
The austere conditions on the EIT sites are fairly typical for infantry Soldiers in the field. "Bravo-2" consisted of an improvised shelter using parachute cord, camouflage netting and the support poles and several rain ponchos. "It keeps the sun off of us, and helps with the daily thundershowers we've been experiencing here lately," said Sanders. "A couple of storms have been so bad that we opted to take cover inside the vehicle. The lightening is the scary part. Being up this high makes us feel a little more vulnerable when that stuff starts flashing all around."
But weather isn't the only thing the Soldiers have to contend with, the animal life in the high desert region isn't too friendly either. "We see lots of big lizards, an occasional rattlesnake, and this one pesky squirrel that likes to run through the shelter late at night," said Bealer. "He's probably just looking for something to eat, but he usually scares us pretty good when he tears through here."
The days are long and the conditions aren't great, but the Soldiers of Task Force Arkansas are dedicated.
"It can be boring at times when there is no activity out here, but it feels good to be making a difference," Sanders said. "And when we do get a bunch of activity working, it is fun to call in and work with the border agents."
Sanders added that a number of the Soldiers have come to like the roll they play so much that they are considering applying for Border Patrol positions when their tour is up in six months. Some Soldiers even volunteer to ride along with Border Patrol agents on their days off to hone their skills in spotting suspicious activity and learn how to track illegal movements throughout the desert.
"It is good for our guys to see how the EIT side meshes with what the Border Patrol does in tracking and apprehending those moving illegals through the desert," said Inman. "Right now we see directly, and hear from the border agents we work closely with, that we are making a difference."