The federal Defense Suicide Prevention Office (DSPO) estimated 93 confirmed or suspected suicides by National Guardsmen in the first three quarters of 2021, in addition to 242 suicides by active duty service members and 141 suicides in the reserves. Data is not yet available for the fourth quarter of last year; consequently, it is not yet known whether suicides increased or decreased in 2021.
However, DSPO did note in its report for the third quarter that suicide deaths among guardsmen went up by six percent in contrast to the third quarter of 2020.
“The Department of Defense (DOD) is fully committed to preventing suicides in our military community — every death by suicide is a tragedy,” the report stated. “The DOD recognizes the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the well-being of our Service members and families.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 47,500 people died by suicide in 2019, which was before the COVID-19 pandemic and the governmental response that included lockdowns, school closures, and other restrictive measures. The CDC stated that the “provisional suicide count” for 2020 is 45,855.
Abbott commenced Operation Lone Star as a way to supplement federal enforcement against illegal crossings as President Biden began loosening the U.S. government’s immigration policies. The mission has included the deployment of thousands of guardsmen and Texas Department of Public Safety officers.
Reports of substandard living conditions, paycheck delays, and the suicide deaths have drawn the ire of Abbott’s political foes, including his primary challengers and Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke. The candidate called it “a mess of his making” and accused the governor of using service members “as political pawns.”
Don Huffines tweeted last week, “What is happening with the Texas National Guard is embarrassing and infuriating.”
In a video produced on January 4, Allen West blasted the leadership of the Texas National Guard, specifically Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris. The candidate said “we rushed into a failure” and service members were given as little as three days’ notice of their deployment.
He cited information published by the Army Times that detailed the suspected suicides and other ostensible problems with guardsmen’s basic needs being met.
A former Army lieutenant colonel himself, West appeared with retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, who also condemned Norris for proposing a budget that cut tuition assistance, the “habitual pay problems” facing troops, and the reported poor living conditions. Featherston was a senior enlisted advisor in the guard.
“I had better conditions than that in Iraq than some soldiers have it on the Texas border,” Featherston said.
Col. Rita Holton, the public affairs officer for the Texas Military Department (TMD), stated in a tweet on Friday that the TMD “maintains 99 percent accuracy on OLS pay for (service) members.” The colonel added that the department was still “actively working” on about 80 pay issues involving “inaccurate direct deposit info, check reissue requests, supplemental pay inaccuracy, & overpayment.”
Abbott reportedly stated at a campaign event in San Antonio last week that the suicides are under investigation and it is possible they are not directly related to Operation Lone Star.
“If they are saying something about what’s happening to the National Guard in Texas, why are they not at the very same time saying something about President Biden and having lost hundreds of members of the U.S. military … to suicide?” Abbott remarked, according to the Texas Tribune.
“Why are they silent about that? The answer — they’re just playing politics. The life of a soldier is far more valuable than the words of a politician playing politics.”
Supporters of Operation Lone Star have touted its potential to deter illegal immigration, while opponents consider it a political ploy for Abbott’s reelection. However, a bill to allot more funding for border security received support from both Democrats and Republicans during the second called session of the Texas legislature. Elected officials in both political parties have called for a stronger response to the border crisis.
The Texas National Guard provides contact information on its website for those battling issues including mental health, sexual assault, domestic violence, and substances abuse.
A copy of the Defense Department’s quarterly suicide report can be found below.
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Hayden Sparks is a senior reporter for The Texan and a lifelong resident of the Lone Star State. He has coached competitive speech and debate and has been involved in politics since a young age. One of Hayden's favorite quotes is by Sam Houston: "Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may."