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Back from the border, NH troops have new perspective: ‘It’s heavy in every way.’

New Hampshire National Guard Sgt. Timothy King keeps watch on four people at the border in Eagle Pass, Texas. Hours later, they cut the fence upriver, climbed through, and asked to be turned over to the authorities.
Annmarie Timmins


/
New Hampshire Bulletin
New Hampshire National Guard Sgt. Timothy King keeps watch on four people at the border in Eagle Pass, Texas. Hours later, they cut the fence upriver, climbed through, and asked to be turned over to the authorities.

New Hampshire Bulletin writer Annmarie Timmins traveled to Eagle Pass, Texas, earlier this year in collaboration withNew Hampshire Public Radio, to shadow the 15 National Guard soldiers sent by Gov. Chris Sununu to assist with border patrol. This is one of several stories on the deployment. 

The relentless Texas heat, even during their overnight shift, was a challenge. Not every soldier appreciated Edgar, the tarantula living in their gym. The Alamo was less impressive than they expected.

The 15 National Guard soldiers Gov. Chris Sununu deployed to the Texas border in April returned to New Hampshire this month with other memories that were far harder to share. At the top of the list was seeing families, especially children, risk so much, even their lives, to reach the United States.

Sgt. Timothy King wiped away tears recalling the young girl he saw lying on the Mexico side of the border fence, looking near death from heat stroke. Soldiers were denied permission to cut the fence to reach her and instead passed ice sheets over it to cool her body. Before King knew whether the girl, about 4, lived or died, he was called away for a fight involving nearly 100 migrants.

“I called the chaplain and did a prayer for the kid,” said King, 26, of Fremont. “I was trying to talk myself out of ‘the kid was dead.’ It sticks with you more than you think.”

Learning later that the girl and her father, also suffering from heat stroke, survived didn’t make the encounter any easier to share.

New Hampshire Guard troops have deployed to the Mexico-U.S. border before under federal orders to assist the U.S. Border Patrol. This time, Sununu used $850,000 in state money to send them to Eagle Pass, Texas, to help it beef up security at its border. The soldiers were not authorized to detain individuals. Instead they monitored for suspicious activity and reported breaches in the fence and illegal crossings to Texas authorities.

In their two-month deployment, the soldiers averaged about 35 detections a night of suspicious activity and illegal crossings. A few migrants tried to run into the woods after clearing the fence but most were “give ups,” people who requested asylum immediately, said Spc. Conner Sills.

Nights were often busy even before their 1.5 miles of responsibility along the fence doubled.

“You have to pay attention and be observant of what’s happening not only in front of you at the anti-climb barrier, but what’s happening in the river, and what’s happening on the opposite bank,” Lt. Ryan Camptold the Bulletin during its reporting trip to Eagle Pass in April. “Every encounter we have on the border is different, and we have to adapt every night to every scenario.”

This was the first deployment to the border for the unit's three female soldiers: Pfc. Madalyn Delotto, 21, of Derry; Spec. Kayli Gilman, 21, of Weare; and Pfc. Macenzi Connors, 20, of Sandown.
Annmarie Timmins
/
New Hampshire Bulletin
This was the first deployment to the border for the unit's three female soldiers: Pfc. Madalyn Delotto, 21, of Derry; Spec. Kayli Gilman, 21, of Weare; and Pfc. Macenzi Connors, 20, of Sandown.

When Sununu welcomed the soldiers back last week at the Guard’s Pembroke armory, he congratulated them on their work.

“It's not like getting duty in Vegas or somewhere exotic and exciting. It can be a tough place and obviously, tough temperatures, even at night,” he said. “There's no doubt you made a difference.”

In their two-month stint, nightly detections of individuals went from an average of 35 to zero, a drop soldiers credited largely to Texas’ decision to fence off its border with Mexico and line it with soldiers from around the country. As of April, the most recent data available, encounters in the Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass, were down 14.3 percent over last year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

“People come up (from Mexico to cross) and say, ‘Maybe not here,’ ” King said.

The soldiers declined to talk about the politics of the border or respond to criticism from some New Hampshire leaders who called Sununu’s decision to deploy them a political stunt. Nor would they share their thoughts on learning during their flight home that President Joe Biden had signed an executive order allowing him to close the border undercertain conditions.

But the troops will tell you that it's nearly impossible to grasp the complexity of the border crisis from nearly 2,000 miles away in New Hampshire. You need to see it firsthand, they said.

“There are thousands of variables, and when you're not exposed to it, you think there's maybe one or two that go into how a decision should be made,” said Sgt. Connor Decker during interviews with soldiers after they returned. “But it's heavy. It’s a heavy geopolitical climate. It’s heavy in humanitarian services. It's heavy in every single way you could fathom, and it's too complex to say that something is right and absolute and wrong and absolute. It’s almost like there is no right or wrong answer to how to handle things.”

Decker, 28, of Salem, added, “Which is why we leave all the decisions for the people way above us and just carry out what we (are ordered to) do.”

Capt. Joshua Lynde, commander of the 237th Military Police Company, did not travel with the soldiers but debriefed with them Tuesday.

“If you only hear something on the news . . . what you might experience and realize is that it's not always malicious,” he told them. “It’s also people who are just desperately trying to find a better life somehow. And then when you see a family unit of parents and children and they just walk 1,000 miles to get there? It's difficult. Sometimes it’s those experiences that will help you broaden your perspective.”

That was true for Spc. Kayli Gilman, 21, of Weare, who hadn’t been deployed to the border before. Asked what stuck most with her, she said a change in perspective.

“You kind of get kind of blind to the fact that we have it so good here in a way,” Gilman said. “You see it on the news . . . and you’re like ‘That’s sad,’ and you change the channel and forget about it. But going down there and seeing it firsthand, it’s definitely eye-opening. Now, if I'm having a bad day . . . in my head I remember that I could always have it worse. It could always be worse.”

Decker, who had deployed to the southern border before, recounted some of those worse moments. He watched several adults with a child trying to make their way over the fence coils of razor wire.

“It tested my personal resolve . . . for the safety of that child,” he said. “That rattled me. That was really tough to look at (because of) how that could have gone.” Decker didn’t have to imagine the possibilities because he saw it go badly another night when someone cut their femoral artery trying to clear the fence.

Also challenging was being unable to assist because their orders prohibited them from helping migrants, including getting a child over the fence safely.

“We're just the call-out guys (who report incidents). So having to watch is very tough at times,” he said.

Sills, 21, of Windham, who had been deployed to the border before, echoed that and recalled seeing a woman hurt her wrist and ankle jumping over the fence as her husband and child waited.

“Her child on the other side started crying. Then her husband started crying and she started crying,” Sills said. This played out within sight of the legal port of entry, where the family could have requested asylum. “It’s just not a good feeling to have these families that are doing everything they can to get their freedom, but knowing that they're not doing it the right way.”

Several of the soldiers said as emotionally hard as it was at times, they’d volunteer again.

“You feel like you make a difference,” said Pfc. Madalyn Delotto, 21, of Derry. Even if it's small, it still feels good to know that I did what I could at the time, to put on the uniform and do what I signed up to do.”

Working alongside National Guard troops from other states gave Pfc. Macenzi Connors, 20, of Sandown, a sense of pride, too. She felt better trained and felt her unit treated the migrants with more respect than she saw from other troops. She wasn’t alone.

“We had a lot more discipline than the other states and just seeing how other states treated families versus how we treated them,” she said. “I noticed that the first day down there.”

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