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Roving patrols, culture shock, and scorpions: NH soldiers arrive in Texas

Two members of the New Hampshire National Guard are in training
Annmarie Timmins
New Hampshire Bulletin
Sgt. Connor Decker, left, of the New Hampshire National Guard, practices putting on a tourniquet with Spc. Jared Toms before deploying to the Texas border.

The 15 New Hampshire National Guard soldiers who arrived in Texas on Thursday to assist with border control were warned about safety risks. Many were not what you’d expect: vipers, ticks, filth flies, mosquitos carrying the dengue virus, and deathstalker scorpions, among the most venomous in the world.

“We have the most advanced weaponry in the world,” Staff Sgt. Matthew Plantier told the soldiers in pre-trip training. “One of the biggest things that takes soldiers out in combat is disease.”

New Hampshire National Guard troops have been deployed to the nation's southern border twice since 2020, each time for about a year and by the federal government. This time, Gov. Chris Sununu is sending them, at the state’s expense, to do what he and several other Republican governors have said the federal government isn’t: stop the smuggling of drugs, weapons, and people into the country.

For the next two months, the 15 soldiers will be stationed at a Texas National Guard base camp in Del Rio, about an hour from Eagle Pass, which became the epicenter of the border crisis in late December when law enforcement encountered a record 4,095 undocumented migrants in a single day.

In asking the state's Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee in February to fund the $850,000 mission, Sununu argued that the influx of drugs and individuals on the federal terrorism watchlist pose a direct threat to New Hampshire residents.

The response from Democrats was immediate.

Some criticized Sununu’s request as a political stunt. A few on the Fiscal Committee questioned what 15 New Hampshire soldiers could accomplish along such a vast border. Others said Sununu could more effectively address the drug crisis by investing $850,000 in treatment programs.

Sununu told the committee his trip to the Texas border 10 days prior had persuaded him to answer Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s call for help.

“If we just sit back and say, ‘Texas, thanks. Good job. Keep spending your own dollars on behalf of the other 49 states,’ that is not the solution,” Sununu said. “This is a national crisis, and it's a big deal. . . . The state's going to do what we do best. We're going to stand up and protect our citizens.”

The committee approved Sununu’s spending request, 6-4, along party lines.

Following orders, not politics

Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn, the guard’s public information officer, described this deployment as an “eyes and ears” assignment, meaning the soldiers will support Texas’ Operation Lone Star mission by looking for and reporting illegal immigrant activity, suspected criminal activity, and destruction of obstacles placed along the border.

They will conduct roving patrols of the border and search areas where individuals have been detained by law enforcement, Heilshorn said. The New Hampshire soldiers will not be deputized and won’t be detaining, arresting, or processing individuals crossing the border, he said.

The troops know some people think they are being deployed for political purposes, as a wedge in the Republican-Democratic fight over border policies.

“We hear it in the news. We're all aware of the political atmosphere but do our best to stay out of that realm and just focus on the mission,” Heilshorn said. “The military is supposed to be apolitical, and we try. Gov. Sununu is our commander in chief, and we're a military unit that follows orders and carries out our mission to the best of our abilities.”

The guard sought volunteers for this deployment, and within two days, 18 had signed up for the 15 spots, Heilshorn said.

The 12 men and three women selected are from the guard’s military police units, though not all work as first responders in their civilian lives. Spc. Kayli Gilman is an LNA at a New Boston long-term care facility for people with brain injuries. Spc. Conner Sills works at the Seabrook Station nuclear power plant.

Seven of the soldiers have been stationed at the border before. None of the 15 speak Spanish. Before flying out last week, they had a week of refresher first-aid and firearms training, and guidance on protecting themselves against the “environmental threats” posed by insects, snakes, and scorpions.

Expect snakes, Plantier told them, if they see rats. Resist the urge to pet dirty, potentially sick stray dogs. Snacks under their beds will attract mice. Keep up with hygiene.

“I know they say in the field, you have to be tough,” Plantier said. “Make sure you get those showers in daily or every other day.”

‘I just like helping people’

Gilman, 21, joined the National Guard when she turned 18. Several of her relatives served in the military but she’s the first female. She sees a connection between her work as an LNA and soldier.

“I just like helping people, basically,” Gilman said.

This will be a second deployment to the Texas border for Sills, who joined the military about three years ago, right after high school. He had been home about four months when he volunteered to return.

“Everyone wants a sense of purpose,” Sills said during a break from training late last month. “For me, especially on this mission, it's helping out the people who just got here.”

Asked what stuck with him from his first deployment to the border, Sills said the culture shock of looking across the Rio Grande, into Mexico, and seeing migrants living in such hard conditions.

“All the things that we've heard about with the health issues and (knowing) it is a condition of how they live. It's just kind of tough seeing that, and we saw a lot of it,” Sills said. “I think the hardest part about that mission was just seeing the situation that some of those people were in and knowing that there wasn't a whole lot that we as individuals can do.”

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