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Guest opinion

Holmes: Be nice to troops deployed to border; they may disagree with their mission

Military Times, the umbrella news organization covering our Department of Defense, has published a list of the units and organizations that have been alerted for mobilization along our border. We need to understand that this is a preliminary list, and that more may follow, but from the perspective of a retired Army officer, this first look is instructive on what we can expect their mission to be — and what it probably will not be.

The units that have been alerted are mostly Army, and the first thing you might notice is that none of them are what we used to call, "Combat Arms" - a now obsolete term of art that means "trigger pullers". Instead, the list is mostly composed of helicopter units ("lifters", not the tank- and people-killing kind), Military Police, Command and Control, Logistics, Medical, Engineer, and Transportation. Also included is one Military Intelligence Headquarters unit, which is probably there to provide analysis and force protection information.

What this tells us is that regardless of what the president has publicly stated, the Department of Defense is viewing this mission more as a humanitarian and military support to civilian authorities, rather than something related to a combat or policing role.

Except for the Military Police, the soldiers coming here are not trained or equipped to patrol the borders or establish checkpoints. They are far more suited to do things like repair roads, bridges, and border fences (Engineers), establish medical clinics and first aid stations, move materials to support Border Patrol and construction/repair operations, and provide the management necessary to coordinate all these things both internally and in partnership with local governments and agencies. The helicopter units will probably have the dual role of supporting the military units, as well as augmenting the Customs and Border Protection aviation unit. Of course, there is an emphasis on Public Relations as well, because the military is keenly aware of the need to be proactive in telling us about what they are doing and not let speculation run rampant.

As for the Military Police units, they are incredibly useful when it comes to traffic control, and for protecting the force from an attack from the outside — something that unfortunately we always have to consider. They can also build and staff detention facilities if needed, but I believe that would be a violation of the Posse Comitatus Act so I doubt they are considering that role as yet.

While it is always tempting to ascribe ulterior motives and look for darker themes, the military force that is coming to our border region shows no sign of being anything other than an auxiliary force to support current Customs and Border Protection operations and perhaps repair and build border infrastructure.

Could that change? Certainly! But I sincerely doubt that anyone inside the Pentagon or any senior decision maker is hoping that will happen. No soldier I have ever met in 30 years of military service would enjoy this mission or wish it upon themselves. It is the type of thing that potentially has a high risk, with very little opportunity for a career reward, and coming just before the holidays is just an added hardship that is not needed.

What should our response be?

Politically, I would encourage anyone do whatever they might feel led to do in speaking with our elected representatives and in our election. However, when you encounter these troops, my advice as a former soldier is to be nice to them. They are not choosing to come here, and they probably are not enjoying it. You might be surprised at the numbers of them who disagree with the deployment and who do not politically support the policies they are being sent here to implement. But as long as the orders they are given are not illegal, they must obey — that is what soldiers are sworn to do. As for me personally, I am going to to buy some gift cards from local businesses and hand them out to any troops I meet. I want them to think of Tucson and Southern Arizona kindly and have fond memories of a nice place where they had to do an unpleasant job.

Mike Holmes is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, whose deployments as a Military Intelligence and Information Operations officer included service in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. Holmes is a former Democratic candidate for the Arizona Legislature.


TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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U.S. Air Force photo

Soldiers from the 541st Sapper Company prepare to board an Air Force C-130J Super Hercules, Oct. 30, 2018, at Ft. Knox, Ky., to be deployed to the border.