National Guard Ahead of Schedule for Operation Jump Start
By Sgt. Jim Greenhill, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
LAREDO, Texas, July 17, 2006 National Guard troops flowing to the Southwest border are highly visible to drivers at an Interstate 35 inspection station north of this Texas border town as soldiers assist U.S. Border Patrol agents scrutinizing every northbound vehicle.
A Texas National Guard soldier and Border Patrol Senior Agent Chad Wamsley accompany Ricky I, a Belgian Malinois, as the detection dog checks a tractor-trailer truck for drugs or concealed people at the Border Patrol's Interstate 35 checkpoint, north of Laredo, Texas. The soldier, who is not being named for security reasons, volunteered to serve for a year on Operation Jump Start, the National Guard's assistance to the Border Patrol securing the U.S. border with Mexico. Photo by Sgt. Jim Greenhill, USA
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
In other places -- such as a maintenance shop at the Border Patrol's Laredo North Station, the stables at the Del Rio Station or the communications center in Yuma, Ariz. -- the soldiers and airmen are not visible to the public.
But the National Guard is here. Up to 6,000 troops participating in Operation Jump Start are expected to be performing duty along the 1,300-mile border in four states from Texas to California by Aug. 1.
The National Guard has exceeded its own operational goals, Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said July 14 at the Pentagon.
Some 800 troops were promised by June 15; more than 1,000 were delivered. And about 300 more troops than the 2,500 promised were in the border states by the end of June. "We are on the glide slope to deliver up to 6,000 by the first of August," Blum said.
The $770-million operation in support of U.S. Customs and the Border Patrol, which could continue for up to two years, followed President Bush's mid-May request for the Guard to help strengthen the border.
"This is truly a civilian law enforcement operation that we happen to be in support of," Blum said.
Border Patrol agents being helped by Operation Jump Start, residents in border communities and Guard members themselves seem pleased. "I'm really glad that they're helping us," said Senior Patrol Agent Antonio Parra, who in mid-July was training a soldier to operate border cameras from a room in the Laredo North Station in the Laredo Sector. "It helps get more agents in the field so we can apprehend more undocumented immigrants."
A man at an Interstate 35 rest area called out to a Guard member wearing an Army combat uniform. "Thank you!" he said. "I'm glad the Guard is on the border."
Army Pfc. Michael Perry. of the Texas National Guard's 249th Maintenance Support Battalion, 36th Infantry Division, said he'll work as a welder for the Border Patrol at the Laredo North Station "as long as they let me."
"We're freeing up agents to go do their job," he said.
Guard members are maintaining Border Patrol vehicles, easing a maintenance backlog at some stations. They are working as wranglers for Border Patrol horses. They are the eyes in the Border Patrol's communications centers, scrutinizing dozens of screens that relay images from border cameras.
Citizen soldiers and airmen are drilling desert wells that will bring water closer to Border Patrol agents. They are fueling Border Patrol vehicles. Though deliberately separated from suspected illegal immigrants and drug runners, they are monitoring those apprehended in booking facility control rooms.
The Guard is backing up Border Patrol agents who stop traffic to check for illegal entrants to the United States and run detection dogs around vehicles. It is building patrol roads and fences; adding lighting, cameras and sensors; conducting aerial reconnaissance; and providing transport, medical assistance and communications support.
About 2,500 troops will be on entry identification teams. "They basically observe illegals or people coming across the border day and night with night-vision goggles and GPS (Global Positioning Systems)," Blum said. "They radio that information to the Border Patrol so that the Border Patrol can intersect or intercept those people, determine whether it's criminal or it's legitimate, and then take the law enforcement action necessary."
And Guard members are reaching out to the communities where they are serving, reassuring residents that the National Guard is not militarizing the border and demonstrating through their actions the wide variety of skills possessed by soldiers and airmen.
In Laredo, Guard leaders have attended community luncheons, talked to community groups, met with elected and appointed leaders, and volunteered for a blood drive, a charity fundraiser and a July 4 celebration.
"We're not putting (up to) 6,000 armed National Guardsmen on the border as a show of force," Blum said. "We are in support of a homeland security operation or a Customs and border protection operation."
"It's a great mission. It's something that's important. So far it's working great -- Border Patrol agents and Guard members working side-by-side with each other," said Army Spc. Benito Garza, of the Texas National Guard's 436th Chemical Company.
Garza and fellow unit member Spc. Fernando Santa Cruz are maintaining Border Patrol vehicles at the Laredo North Station. "They need a hand," Santa Cruz said. "We're helping out a lot."
Senior Patrol Agent Ron Graves said Sgt. Hector Rodriguez, from Texas's 111th Aerial Support Group, will free up an agent who had been working in a Laredo North Station communications center for law enforcement duties when he is fully trained to operate cameras and monitoring sensors and other border surveillance equipment.
"He's a good man to work with, and I'm glad he's here," Graves said. "It's great because we're shorthanded. We need more agents."
The Guard expects to be on the border for up to two years as the Border Patrol -- already the nation's largest law enforcement agency -- beefs up from about 11,000 to more than 17,000 agents.
Many of the more than 3,300 citizen soldiers and more than 270 citizen airmen who were in the border states July 16 have volunteered to serve in a duration force, often for periods as long as a year. And many of them are working in their own states.
"It's good -- Texas taking care of Texas," said Army Spc. Erika Hinojosa, of the 436th Chemical Company, as she directed tractor-trailer trucks through a Border Patrol checkpoint north of Laredo July 14. But the soldier also said she volunteered for one reason: "My country."
And the country is supporting her. More than 30 states so far have signed memorandums of agreement to support Operation Jump Start, and no governor has declined to help, Blum said.
Guard members helped out when a detection dog found 11 illegal immigrants sweating under pallets and boxes on a rental trailer at the Interstate 35 checkpoint. The trailer had no ventilation and little water. Their destination was San Antonio, about two hours north. The temperature? 105 degrees.
"They wouldn't have made it," said Army Sgt. Julio Pacheco, of the 3rd Battalion, 141st Infantry Regiment. He was the noncommissioned officer in charge of troops serving at the inspection station. "We're here to support the Border Patrol agents. We felt like we did our job because we're saving people's lives."
Although Guardsmen and Border Patrol agents say they have had to learn each others' "languages," they have much in common. The two groups have worked together for many years on operations that have included building roads and fences and conducting counterdrug operations. "We have been operating on the Southwest border now for 20 years," Blum said.
Some Border Patrol agents are Guard members, and it's not uncommon to see framed pictures of agents serving overseas in military uniforms or Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve certificates honoring the Border Patrol on their stations' walls.
Agents and Guard members share demanding training requirements, and both groups are familiar with the military-style culture. The Guard members receive additional cultural sensitivity training, education in the rules of force and other training for Operation Jump Start. They also undergo background checks.
Some of the Guard members who have volunteered to serve for a year say they are interested in Border Patrol jobs. "It's an opportunity to find out what the Border Patrol does," Garza said.
Although the Guard is operating along the entire border, two Arizona areas -- Tucson and Yuma -- and El Paso, Texas, have special focus because they are viewed as problem areas.
"It is a very, very difficult, frontier-like border in many places," Blum said. "In other places, it is very mountainous and very restrictive. And then in other parts of the border, it is clearly almost like an urban megalopolis."
(Sgt. Jim Greenhill is assigned to the National Guard Bureau.)