Tuesday, 13 Nov 2018
World

In the middle of a political minefield, the army is preparing for the border for a caravan of migrants

With a pair of bulldozers rumbling in front of him through muddy terrain, the Staff Sergeant. Kevin Barr observed that the austere beginnings of an army headquarters camp at the southern border slowly drew closer on Saturday.

After a night of rain and temperatures falling below 50 degrees, the open field in which they lived – land provided by the US Customs and Border Protection – had turned into a gloomy mess with the consistency of peanut butter.

The soldiers had passed serrated concertina wires around the perimeter of the base, planted dozens of olive-green tents and lined dozens of Humvees and heavy transporter trucks last week, but nothing had been done yet to prepare for mud in South Texas, typically dusty.

"If we can get gravel, we can potentially start to burn some of the areas and try to put a road here," said Barr. "Because this clay land is quite thick."

The raw weather was the latest surprise for mission soldiers whose workings were disrupted by President Trump's warnings during the election campaign that an "invasion" of migrants – many of them women and children – was heading north to the United States.

The deployment was described by the critics as a move to rally Trump's base in the midterm elections, even as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month that "we are not political stunts "in the army. Less than a week later, the Pentagon withdrew the operation its name from "faithful patriot" while he complained openly about politics. Images of soldiers stretching an accordion wire across the border just before election day had just appeared.


A soldier stands in front of a flag during a training session at Donna's base camp. (Calla Kessler / The Washington Post)

The public's attention has been diverted from the mission in recent days, with the president focusing on other issues. But the deployment of the heavy army from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, continued despite questions about its necessity.

The caravan is still hundreds of kilometers from the border and she left this week for Tijuana, 1,500 kilometers to the west. The mission is expected to extend until December 15, moving soldiers away from their families during Thanksgiving and the approaching Christmas.

About 5,600 soldiers were dispatched Friday, according to the Pentagon. Approximately 2,800 are in Texas, including more than 1,000 in the Griffin Task Force, an army unit that temporarily settles in the Rio Grande Valley and has an officer corps of the 89th Police Brigade. Fort Hood, Texas.

Colonel Richard Ball, the Task Force Commander, asked Friday at a press conference at a border crossing in Hidalgo, Texas, to point out that the US military would not play any role in it. 39, law enforcement in the operation. This is considered a stumbling block because of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits active duty troops from participating in such activities in most cases. US troops should have "very little casual contact" with migrants, he said, and will follow instructions from CBP officials if that happens.

At Donna's base camp, soldiers are advised not to discuss politics, a common refrain in any operation. But they also cautiously answer questions about the number of soldiers who live there, how long they will stay or what they will do. At least two soldiers disagree on Saturday over whether their job should even be considered a deployment, knowing that they are still in the United States. Pentagon press releases continue to indicate that service members are deployed for border support.

Captain Lauren Blanton, an engineer officer stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, said that she had arrived at Donna more than a week ago with three other soldiers and had discovered an open field. As "mayor of the camp", she has since overseen the installation of a caravan with 16 shower stalls, tents for a facility to meet daily medical needs and a single, massive tent that is generally used as a cafeteria for children. troops. However, given the number of soldiers crossing Donna, army officials instead turned the big tent – the only one that was hot in the camp – into housing for more soldiers.

On Saturday, we could see more than 100 soldiers relaxing inside, some reading, others playing video games on their phones, others still swinging a football and l '. one trying to solve a Rubik's cube. Hundreds of beds were spread over at least 18 on a larger space than a hockey rink.

Captain Tim Smith, commander of the 977th Fort Riley Military Police Company in Kan, said he and his soldiers arrived Friday at Donna on buses from the San Antonio-Lackland common base, over 240 kilometers. The unit received a few days of training there, where she learned basic Spanish sentences and how to use Google Translate, he said.

"Potentially, we are going elsewhere in the future, but for now, we do not know," he said.

One of Smith's soldiers, Sgt. Steven Howd, 1st class, stated that he expected the company to develop a training plan as soon as it knew its mission.

"In fact, I expected the conditions to be even more austere," he said, sitting on a camp bed. "I really expected to be even closer to the border and provide all the protection of the force that would be needed by our engineers to do their job, but without such a nice accommodation."

Outside, in the cold, Sgt. Dacmen Ma of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood watched the work of the bulldozers their magic in the mud. Once they have put enough land in the berms, Ma's team of soldiers planned to set up a massive fuel bladder for trucks, generators and other equipment.

Ma, who grew up in Houston, returned from a deployment in Iraq last year, he said. He had never thought of receiving another assignment on the ground a few hours from home.

"Most of the time, I think I would be abroad somewhere," he said.

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