HONOLULU — Two Hawaii Army National Guard helicopters are flying missions looking for drug smugglers — not in the Aloha State, but along a portion of the 1,250 miles of Texas border with Mexico on the Rio Grande River.
The first deployment of the Hilo-based UH-72 Lakota helicopters, which arrived on the Big Island in 2012, is part of an airborne search effort being undertaken by Guard units across the country to help the Department of Homeland Security with border drug control and immigration efforts.
Capt. Deanna Manriquez, a detachment commander with the 3rd Battalion, 140th Aviation, flew night missions looking for the illegal activity.
The two helicopters and between five and 10 Hawaii National Guard soldiers are still there, while Manriquez recently returned to Hawaii.
The Lakotas have sophisticated infrared cameras, and Manriquez tracked smugglers running bales of drugs across the Rio Grande and helped border control agents find illegal immigrant children separated from their parents in the thick brush.
"I thought it was a great experience," Manriquez said. "For one, I love to fly. I love the fact that the mission allows us to use the specialized equipment on our aircraft the way that we do. It's a real-world mission, and it's nice to see every night the rewards of what you are doing."
Lt. Col. Chuck Anthony, a Hawaii National Guard spokesman, said, "When something happens (nationally), disaster-wise, the National Guard Bureau actually goes out to all 54 states and territories and say, ‘OK, who's got this capability out there? And can we bring you in?'"
New York state said in late December that its National Guard was sending two of its Lakotas to the Texas border for the same mission, called Operation River Watch II, involving 120 Guard soldiers and 12 aircraft from a variety of states as part of a larger nationwide commitment of 300 Guard soldiers.
The Hawaii contingent, which is expected to be flying missions along the Rio Grande through the summer, is part of an evolving support the National Guard Bureau has provided to the Department of Homeland Security along the border with Mexico.
In May 2010, President Barack Obama announced that up to 1,200 National Guard troops would be sent to the region to support Border Patrol efforts.
That number was closer to 6,000 under a 2006 initiative by then-President George W. Bush.
In late 2011 the Defense Department briefed Congress on plans to reduce that number to 300, with the remaining National Guard troops focusing on aerial surveillance missions, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The Obama administration cited greater efficiency, but there also were concerns that the border was being militarized by the United States.
National Guard magazine said in September that River Watch II was staffed by Guard personnel from 12 states and flying missions out of Laredo, Harlingen and Brownsville, using the Lakota helicopters.
The Lakotas are outfitted for counterdrug missions in Hawaii and don't have a wartime mission like Black Hawk or Chinook helicopters, which are also flown by the Hawaii Guard, officials said.
That makes them perfect for the U.S.-Mexican border mission.
The Hawaii National Guard began the rotations in January. Manriquez said in the time she was there, more than 3,000 pounds of drugs were seized.
On one night her helicopter tracked about eight men on a boat as they crossed the river, and then she followed some in a truck to a house with a large group of individuals who had been smuggled across the border — leading to a number of arrests, she said.
"It's not as exciting from the air as I'm sure it is for the guys on the ground," Manriquez said. "(But) every night's a different experience."