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Texas National Guard believed drowned after attempting to save migrant crossing Rio Grande

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Sig Christenson

San Antonio Express-News

A Texas National Guard soldier disappeared Friday morning and is believed to have drowned while trying to rescue a migrant struggling in a dangerous stretch of the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass.The Maverick County sheriff said an all-day search for the soldier had changed from a rescue effort to a recovery mission by noon, though the Texas Guard said in a brief statement that reports of a fatality were “inaccurate.”

Other guardsmen, Texas Department of Public Safety troopers and Border Patrol agents “are working rapidly to find the soldier,” who had “gone missing along the river during a mission-related incident,” the guard said.

The guard did not respond to further questions about the presumed death, which may have been the first involving one of its soldiers on Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border mission. The search had been underway only a few hours when the tragedy was being blamed either on Operation Lone Star, as it is called, or on the Biden administration’s border policies that the governor has said made the mission necessary.

Problems ranging from slow paychecks to cramped quarters dogged the deployment for months, as have claims of soldier suicides tied to it, bringing criticism from Abbott’s own GOP primary opponents as well as from Democrats.

The incident occurred around 8:30 a.m., Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber said. He did not know the GI’s identity but said he was around 23 years old and had dived into the river to help a woman in trouble near a tributary called Seco Creek, where the water is deep and muddy and where migrants drown as often as twice a week.

“I just got a call from one of the captains that they just picked up some of the belongings of the soldier there by the river, armor and whatever he left when he jumped (into the water),” he said.

The woman was safe and in Border Patrol custody, but the rescue mission for the soldier had failed to find him, and as the hours passed, those involved in the multiagency search believed he had drowned, the sheriff said.

“It’s sad. That river looks like it’s not dangerous, but it’s very dangerous,” he said. “That’s why they call it the Rio Bravo in Spanish. Bravo means like a bull, like an angry bull.”

The governor launched the sprawling mission in response to a surge of migrants in spring 2021, saying the Biden administration had failed to protect the state’s long border with Mexico. His office has said the operation numbered as many as 10,000 DPS troopers and guardsmen. The guard has said it had 10,000 troops “supporting” the mission but has not said how many were deployed in border areas.

The guard’s part of the operation is now on its second set of leaders. Abbott abruptly replaced Army Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, the guard’s first female commander, with Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Suelzer last month. A string of other commanders have since been replaced.

Troops complained to the San Antonio Express-News in January about a mission with no clear end date, often requiring them to stand at observation posts in the South Texas brush for 12 to 14 hours a day without portable toilets. Some had missed paychecks or had been partially paid. Some slept in their vehicles because they were more comfortable than the packed trailers in which they were billeted.

The guard has said it has worked to improve those conditions and correct pay problems.

The impression by some soldiers that the deployment was a political exercise has been echoed by Abbott’s critics in both parties. This month, he used the DPS to set up inspections of heavy truck traffic arriving legally at border ports of entry, ending the delays days later amid an uproar from affected businesses, partisan foes and Sid Miller, the Republican Texas agriculture commissioner.

“Your inspection protocol is not stopping illegal immigration,” Miller wrote in a letter to Abbott. “It is stopping food from getting to grocery store shelves and in many cases causing food to rot in trucks — many of which are owned by Texas and other American companies. It is simply political theater.”

The DPS reported that the inspections failed to find any drugs, weapons or other contraband.

When told of the guard’s insistence that the missing soldier wasn’t dead, Schmerber reiterated that if the man were alive hours after the incident, “he would be walking around.” The sheriff stressed that authorities were working to recover the soldier’s body — “that’s the way it is.”

As the sun sank lower in the southwestern sky, search parties still had not found him.

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