Observe and report: Troops are the eyes and ears of Border Patrol
By ROSE L. THAYER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 6, 2019
EL PASO, Texas – Army Staff Sgt. Dale Galloway discussed his day-to-day work at the U.S.-Mexico border by showing off a truck outfitted with camera equipment that allows him to detect people — and animals — 18 to 25 miles away. Whatever suspicious activity Galloway observes, he reports it to Border Patrol agents who are always just minutes away.
The biggest difference between this mission and his time in Afghanistan — this isn’t combat, he said.
“The threats downrange are a lot different than the threats down here,” Galloway said Thursday.
However, as Galloway described the mission in Texas, he is keenly aware that his deployment to the southern border is controversial and a constant subject of discussion among politicians and pundits of both political parties. He left Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington in February, and he said he chose not to tell anyone aside from his wife that he was deploying on the southern border simply to avoid the sensitive subject.
“With Border Patrol, we have the same common goal,” Galloway said about whether the mission is worth him being away from his wife and three children. “Border security is national security.”
That phrase was heard often during a two-hour media event Thursday at the El Paso sector of the border that is designed to showcase the work of the soldiers and Marines who are part of the mobile surveillance camera mission. About 1,200 troops are assigned to the mission, which utilizes Border Patrol vehicles decked out with cameras and infrared technology at 150 sites in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California, said Brig. Gen. Walter Duzzny, deputy commander of U.S. Army North, the headquarters overseeing the border deployment for U.S. Northern Command.
“With the [surveillance mission] we are their eyes and ears from those [vehicle] positions along the southwest border and allowing them to conduct their mission,” Duzzny said.
This mission began in February, though active-duty troops first arrived at the border in October when the Department of Homeland Security requested help as a large caravan of migrants moving north from Central America approached the U.S. southern border.
Though that caravan didn’t arrive in the numbers expected, the southern border has continued to see record numbers of migrants and families seeking asylum. Enforcement actions are up 99 percent from last year, according to Customs and Border Protection data released Wednesday. In this fiscal year, agents have apprehended 593,507 people. Of those people, 132,887 took place in May.
Servicemembers don’t interact with people at the border or detain migrants crossing illegally. However, their assistance with the surveillance cameras has helped Border Patrol apprehend 13,000 people and seize 3,000 pounds of marijuana, Duzzny said.
Without servicemembers’ support, Border Patrol agents would not have enough personnel to operate their mobile surveillance vehicles. Instead, agents are being pulled into overcrowded stations where they process, feed and secure migrants, said Julian Najera, a Border Patrol agent based at the Santa Teresa station in New Mexico. Troops operate seven surveillance vehicles for his station.
“Any tool you can give me on my toolbelt makes me more useful,” said Mario Escalante, a Border Patrol agent in the El Paso sector — one of the hardest hit with the recent influx of migrant families. “We have to look at every resource to get as many additional tools as we can.”
The servicemembers operate the vehicles in teams of two following a 40-hour training course on how to use the equipment. Galloway said he tends to secure the outside of the vehicle while another soldier works the cameras inside. He brings his own lunch every day and sleeps in a hotel.
Army Pvt. Daniel Aguilar also works the surveillance mission and he said he has reported to Border Patrol instances of people crossing illegally.
“It’s the same reports we do in the Army,” he said of the observe and report system. “If we see suspicious activity, we call nearby agents.”
Soldiers do carry Spanish word cards should they come in contact with anyone to minimize and de-escalate situations while they wait for agents to arrive. Agents are within a 15-minute drive from any vehicle operated by troops.
Though the military has said troops operate away from the border to decrease the possibility of an incident, there have been two reported instances of troops encountering people while conducting operations. On April 13, two soldiers were disarmed by Mexican soldiers during an encounter in Clint, Texas. Last month, a Marine serving in California said he was attacked by three people in his vehicle and discharged his weapon.
These instances are “very uncommon,” Duzzny said. “For the duration that we’ve been involved in this operation and really the size of the operation — the geographic size of the operation — it’s extremely small. Our soldiers understand what the protocols and procedures are. They are trained in them.”
Lt. Col. Timothy Gatlin, commander of 1st Battalion, 37th Field Artillery Regiment out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, said Army North provided various training vignettes that prepared the 600 soldiers from his battalion for the types of encounters they might face.
“Most of it with the standard rules of force really teaches us to de-escalate any situation and really our primary radio call is going to be to our Border Patrol partners, because they operate in such close proximity to us on a day-to-day basis,” Gatlin said.
The mobile surveillance mission is just one way troops are supporting Border Patrol. In total, there are about 2,000 active-duty servicemembers and other missions include medical, logistical and food service support as well as medical and aviation assets. There are also about 1,900 National Guard servicemembers deployed along the border.
The mission for Gatlin’s battalion will end in the coming weeks, and new units will replace them. The Defense Department has approved the border mission through Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.
Though Gatlin’s troops are not conducting their typical field artillery tasks, he said the mission has been valuable in other ways.
“What it does give us is an outstanding leadership laboratory,” Gatlin said.
Outside of improving his military skills, Galloway also took the deployment as an opportunity to revisit his health and fitness goals. He’ll be going home about 50 pounds lighter.
“It’s probably because I’m not eating my wife’s food. She’s a good cook,” he said.