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Members of the Texas National Guard struggle with working conditions at the border

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, deployed thousands of National Guard troops on to the border with Mexico over the past year. They've been adding to the border wall and been told to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges. Initially, this deployment earned the governor praise from conservatives as he heads into an election this year. But amid poor working conditions and other problems, four members of the National Guard have killed themselves. And now troops are unionizing to demand change. Texas Public Radio's Carolina Cuellar reports.

CAROLINA CUELLAR, BYLINE: A year ago, with a record numbers of migrants crossing the Texas-Mexico border, Governor Greg Abbott announced a new controversial border security program, Operation Lone Star. Even though judges have ruled that many of the program's policies violate federal jurisdiction over immigration, Abbott remains committed. Here he is on the right-wing podcast "Ruthless."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RUTHLESS")

GREG ABBOTT: Anybody coming across the border who in any way tries to damage that fence - they are guilty of two crimes. One is trespassing. The other is vandalism.

CUELLAR: Three months before announcing his reelection campaign, Abbott ordered a massive deployment of around 10,000 troops, or about half the state's National Guard, and asked it be done over just two months. Now guard members say they're suffering for it.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD MEMBER #1: These conditions are just, I think, unparalleled. I mean, really, the only comparison I could draw would be the Hurricane Harvey mission, where we were sleeping in high-school gymnasiums or, you know, other military armories that didn't have power.

CUELLAR: We agreed to withhold the guard member's name and alter his voice because he fears retaliation, such as a deployment even further from home. The Army Times first reported problems with Operation Lone Star. Four soldiers died by suicide over the first two months of the mission. And many spoke of poor living conditions, gear shortages and unusually last-minute deployments.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD MEMBER #1: Having four in such a short period of time seems like quite a coincidence if this mission wasn't at least some contributing factor to it. It's terrible. It's unfortunate.

CUELLAR: Another anonymous soldier said the days are idle because guard members don't feel qualified to make arrests. This lack of purpose makes them suspect they're being used for the governor's reelection campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED GUARD MEMBER #2: No, we absolutely are just political pawns here. And that's - yeah, that's not a good feeling.

CUELLAR: The Texas military department spoke out against the revelations by saying reporters gleaned information from anonymous sources and unverified documents. But Texas Public Radio has firsthand accounts from six members of the guard stationed in different locations across the border. The Texas Military Department, which oversees the National Guard, said it is addressing these issues. But that's happening during rather than before the deployment. Now Abbott is even facing criticism from the right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLEN WEST: Why is this happening? Because we rushed into a failure.

CUELLAR: Allen West is running against Governor Abbott in the GOP primary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WEST: We decided that it was all about a political optic. It was about a political opportunity.

CUELLAR: West is a veteran and attacked Abbott during a campaign speech for looking tough on illegal immigration at the expense of guard members. Governor Abbott says his adversaries are using the suicides for political gain. He said these cases are still under investigation. Still, Southwestern University political scientist Emily Sydnor says hearing about guardsmen's experiences could end up swaying some Republican voters in the primary.

EMILY SYDNOR: The stories of the guardsmen who have had sort of terrible experiences in any number of different ways I think, in some ways, will have more of an impact than this overarching sort of statistical story about, you know, numbers of arrests and the safety at the border.

CUELLAR: As for the guard troops, they've begun organizing under the Texas State Employees Union and have already conducted their first official meeting. The union aims to improve soldiers' conditions and ultimately make the mission voluntary so guard members can choose to go home. After the unionization announcement, the Military Department lifted an unpopular curfew and increased the distance soldiers are allowed to travel without a pass. Hunter Schuler is a specialist in the guard and union member.

HUNTER SCHULER: I'd like to think we played at least some small part in helping improve, helping get those conditions changed.

CUELLAR: Schuler hopes this means military leadership is now more receptive to their concerns.

For NPR News, I'm Carolina Cuellar in McAllen, Texas.

INSKEEP: Just a note - if you or somebody you know may be considering suicide, there is help available. You can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - 800-273-8255 - or the crisis text line. You can send the message HOME to this number - 741741. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.