Military guard

Texas National Guard struggles to pay soldiers while cutting tuition by more than half

As Governor Greg Abbott mobilizes thousands of Texas National Guard soldiers to aid him in his border initiative known as Operation Lone Star, the state has struggled to pay the soldiers on time while cutting their tuition assistance benefits, raising concerns about the morale of the 19,000 force members.

In recent months, Abbott has stepped up the National Guard’s presence along the Texas-Mexico border, enlisting some 10,000 troops to put up border fences and help Department of Public Safety soldiers put in is implementing its plan to arrest and imprison migrants on state charges, dubbed Operation Lone Star. Military officers recognized last week, there were “about 150 soldiers with pay problems”, attributing the delays to the “scale” of the “embarkation of thousands of guards” as part of the operation.

A spokesman for the Texas Military Department, which oversees the National Guard, told media the pay issues had been addressed, although the department did not respond to further requests for comment on Wednesday.

The compensation concerns fueled criticism from Democrat and Republican opponents of Abbott, who also targeted the governor over a spate of four recent National Guard suicide deaths, questioning support for the mental health of Abbott. soldiers deployed at the border.

“Gov. Abbott is the commander-in-chief of the Texas National Guard, ”former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, one of five Democrats running for governor, said in a statement. “It is his duty to pay them, to offer them the benefits he has promised them and to make sure that they receive the appropriate mental health support in order to avoid the kind of tragedy that we have seen.” these last months. And if he cannot justify their deployment, he owes them and their families to send them home.

Critics denounce cuts in tuition aid

Meanwhile, the pay problems worsen, reducing the military department’s tuition assistance budget by more than 50% from $ 3 million to $ 1.4 million. The change – suggested by military officials to meet a 5% budget cut imposed on most state agencies by Abbott and other heads of state – reduced the number of soldiers who will receive education allowances and the amount paid to those who will still receive assistance.

Military officials have separately called on state lawmakers to restore the budget for tuition aid. Texas Adjutant General Tracy Norris – who commands the military department under Abbott – told a House committee in March that tuition assistance is “vital to the retention and longevity of our guards.”

Norris said state tuition fees help members of the military and Air National Guard cover education costs before they accumulate enough service time to become eligible for federal aid. She noted that members of the Texas State Guard, meanwhile, are not eligible for federal tuition assistance.

“For the State Guard, these are just state benefits,” Norris said. “Tuition assistance is really the only thing we have to keep these members. “

In the 2019-2020 school year, according to the Military Department’s budget request, the state received 985 requests for tuition assistance and awarded 608 military personnel an average of $ 2,338. The total cost of $ 1.4 million is roughly double the ministry’s tuition assistance budget of $ 714,211 for the current fiscal year.

Retired Command Sgt. Major Jason Featherston, a former senior official in the Texas National Guard, said the tuition fee cuts are among the factors contributing to low morale among soldiers deployed to the border for Abbott’s initiative.

“When you cut tuition assistance benefits by 54%, that’s wrong,” Featherston said Tuesday at a press conference hosted by Allen West, one of Abbott’s main Republican challengers. “It’s not taking care of a soldier. And the soldiers depend on this TA for an education, to get a better job, to support their families more. “

Mental health budget increased

The Texas National Guard was also rocked by a spate of four suicides in a recent eight-week period from late October to mid-December, with all four soldiers linked to Operation Lone Star, the Army Times first reported. A fifth soldier assigned to Abbott’s border initiative died early New Year’s Day after accidentally shooting himself in the head, days after another soldier survived a suicide attempt, the Times reported.

It’s unclear how the string of suicide deaths compares to the later years or early months of 2021, before thousands more troops were sent to the border. In fiscal year 2017, the Texas National Guard recorded nine suicides and 14 attempted suicides, according to a 2018 budget document in which Texas military officials requested additional funding for counseling and behavioral health services.

State lawmakers earlier this year approved a two-year budget that more than triples the Texas Military Department’s two-year budget for mental health from $ 2 million to $ 6.6 million.

The military department did not respond to an email Wednesday requesting suicide figures for the past four exercises.

Military department officials are just the latest to struggle to keep pace with demands from Abbott’s border program, which also overwhelmed local officials who were quickly overwhelmed last year by a massive backlog of arrests resulting from Operation Lone Star.

The governor said his border initiative was necessary to handle a sharp increase in border encounters under the Biden administration. Critics, meanwhile, accused Abbott of flattering right-wing activists and voters who urged the governor to take a stronger stance on border security.

Abbott largely ignored the criticism, instead focusing his attention on President Joe Biden, whom he sued on Tuesday for a federal vaccine term for the military.

“Texas is more than grateful to the brave men and women of the National Guard and DPS who diligently and selflessly secure the border in the absence of the federal government,” Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze said Tuesday. . “We continue to work with department heads to ensure that everyone deployed in Texas and overseas receives the support they need to keep moving forward and serving our great state and our nation.”

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