Gov. Greg Abbott says critics are "playing politics" over Texas National Guard suicides

Members of the Texas National Guard set up a shade structure while they guard a gate along the border wall in Del Rio on Sept. 16. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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SAN ANTONIO — Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday pushed back against critics of his border security mission and the suicides that have been linked to it, saying the loss of any life is “extraordinarily hurtful” but that his detractors are “just playing politics.”

The group of critics includes his challengers for reelection in both parties, who have been highlighting reports that there have been four suicides, pay delays and other problems among the National Guard troops that Abbott has sent to the border as part of “Operation Lone Star.”

During a campaign stop here, Abbott said the pay issue affected a small portion of the troops and has been resolved. However, when it came to the suicides, Abbott gave an animated answer during which he lamented the deaths but said critics should also be focused on the military suicides that have happened under President Joe Biden.

“If they are saying something about what’s happening to the National Guard in Texas, why are they not at the very same time saying something about President Biden and having lost hundreds of members of the U.S. military … to suicide?” Abbott said. “Why are they silent about that? The answer — they’re just playing politics. The life of a soldier is far more valuable than the words of a politician playing politics.”

The Army Times reported in December that four soldiers tied to Operation Lone Star had died by suspected suicide over two months. The publication reported last week that a fifth solider had accidentally shot and killed himself while off duty and that a sixth had attempted suicide and survived.

Abbott said the suicides are being investigated and thinks it will come out that not all “actually occurred during Operation Lone Star.” One of the soldiers was denied a hardship release and died by suicide a few days later, the Army Times reported. Another was on temporary hardship waiver when he died, according to the publication.

The Army Times’ initial story about Operation Lone Star raised a number of questions about the mission related to its focus, morale and troops’ pay. The Texas Military Department has acknowledged it was a “hurdle” to add so many soldiers to the state payroll system in a surge last fall that bumped troops on the mission from about 1,200 in June to 10,000 in November.

Abbott said Tuesday that he knew of only 84 soldiers out of 10,000 that “had a paycheck challenge.” He said the issues largely had to do with troops getting their paycheck at the end of the month instead of the start of the month, “and they just had to go through the paperwork process to get it done.”

“All paycheck issues have been addressed,” Abbott said.

Abbott’s numbers regarding paycheck issues are different from those that the Texas Military Department provided last month. At the time, the department told a Houston TV station that there were “approximately 150 service members experiencing pay issues.”

Before blasting his critics, Abbott said the suicides needed to be considered in the “larger context” of the military. He said there were 476 suicides in the military over the first nine months of 2021, noting they came “under the Biden administration.” It was not immediately clear where he got that number from. Quarterly reports released by the U.S. Department of Defense show it tallied 380 suicides during those nine months.

Annual reports say there were 580 suicides in the military in 2020, 498 in 2019 and 541 in 2018.

Abbott said it is “offensive for any of these people raising the issues [with Operation Lone Star] to politicize the issue of a military member losing their life.”

The critics have included Abbott’s likely Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke, who has said the National Guard troops should not be used as “political pawns.”

“Abbott is shrugging off the deaths of five Guardsmen as he continues to denigrate the service of all Guard members by asking them to perform as the backdrop for his political photo ops,” O’Rourke said in a statement Tuesday in response to Abbott’s comments. “He hasn’t paid them on time, he’s slashed their earned benefits, he has many living without necessities as basic as bathrooms, and he’s left them without any leadership from the governor. This is a mess of Abbott’s making.”

Abbott has also faced heat from GOP primary challengers, including former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West, who held a news conference about the issues with Operation Lone Star last week.

“The only person playing politics is Governor Abbott with the lives of our [Texas National Guard] troops,” West said in a statement after Abbott’s remarks Tuesday. “Instead of politicized photo ops and press conferences, Abbott should visit with the troops his failed Operation Lone Star is harming.”

West is a former Army lieutenant colonel who retired from the military after he was investigated in 2003 for using improper methods to force information out of an Iraqi detainee.

Another Abbott primary challenger, Don Huffines, said Sunday that what is happening with the National Guard is “embarrassing and infuriating.”

James Barragán contributed to this report.