Staff Sgt. Stacy L. Hanson, from Alpha Company (Combat Engineers), 29th Brigade Special Troops Battalion, welds bars to a 20-foot-high pipe wall being built in the Nogales, Ariz., border town during Operation JUMP START in May. CLICK FOR LARGE
Hawaii Guard helps secure US-Mexico borders
Their duties include keeping surveillance and participating in construction projects
For nearly a year and without much fanfare, 234 Hawaii Army and Air National Guard members have been sent to work in the desert.
However, these citizen soldiers weren't deployed to the deserts of Iraq or Afghanistan.
They have been part of a controversial initiative by President Bush to use National Guard soldiers to augment U.S. Customs and Border Patrol until the government could hire and train more agents by 2008 to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. Begun in May 2006, so far 8,300 guardsmen have been sent to the border region in four southwestern states.
Since the program began, 194 Hawaii Army Guard soldiers and 40 Hawaii Air Guard airmen have been sent to the Tucson and Yuma areas as part of their annual commitment to spend at least two weeks in the field.
The bulk of those soldiers, 180, are from the Hawaii Army National Guard's newly formed 29th Brigade Special Troops Battalion and will complete a 22-day mission near the Arizona-Mexico border on Saturday.
Led by Lt. Col. Moses Kaoiwi, the battalion's role in "Operation Jump Start" is to conduct surveillance to disrupt and prevent illegal border crossings. "This mission has provided an opportunity for our new battalion to test all our mobilization operation in a real world mission," said Kaoiwi.
An entry-identification team maintains watch at an observation post on the U.S.-Mexico border at Nogales, Ariz. Hawaii Guard members are helping patrol the border. CLICK FOR LARGE
Of the 180 soldiers now in Arizona, 120 are doing border surveillance and 60 are doing engineering work.
Capt. Auredith T. Tumpap, who commands the battalion's Alpha Company, said the soldiers are building and improving roads, barriers and fences along the Arizona border.
Tumpap, who deployed with the Hawaii Army National Guard's 29th Brigade Combat Team when it went to Iraq in 2004, said the 120 guardsmen doing surveillance are not authorized to arrest people trying to get into the United States illegally. They are assigned to 10 entry-identification teams scattered along the entire southern border of Arizona.
"All we do is identify them trying to cross the border illegally," Tumpap said last week in a phone interview.
The mission of the teams is to report suspicious activities, involving possible smuggling of drugs or people, to the customs patrols. The observation posts are manned round-the-clock with soldiers using infrared sensors at night.
"We look for suspicious people who are trying to jump or crawl under the fences, which are 20 feet high," Tumpap added. "They do it in broad daylight. I guess many of them are so desperate they will try anything."
In the May issue of the National Guard magazine, Sgt. Gustavo Soto, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol supervisory agent, emphasized that the guardsmen do not confront or arrest people suspected of trafficking illegal drugs, weapons or humans.
He said there were 9,200 apprehensions in the Tucson sector and that more than 290,000 pounds of marijuana were seized between Oct. 1, 2006, and Jan. 31.
Soto said that with the help of the National Guard, "apprehensions of illegal crossovers have dropped 12 percent, which means less people are even attempting to cross the border illegally, while drug seizures have gone up 29 percent since last year."
Besides manning these identification teams, which are at highly visible places to serve as a deterrent, another 60 Hawaii guardsmen are assigned to Task Force Diamondback, where combat engineers are constructing roads, drainage ditches, barriers and fences.
Tumpap said soldiers from his company are building and improving roads and fences in the Tucson towns of Nogales and Sierra Vista.
"It takes about two hours in the morning to drive to the construction sites and again another two hours in the afternoon to commute to these remote border sites," said Tumpap, "which makes for a long 12-hour workday."
The new battalion is composed of former separate elements of the 29th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. The units are Headquarters and Headquarters Company (military police, medical, administrative and logistic personnel), Alpha Company (which used to be the 227th Engineers), Bravo Company (229th Military Intelligence), and Charlie Company, a new signal unit.
Hawaii Air Guard units that have participated in the border mission include 154th Civil Engineer Squadron and the 201st Combat Communications Group.
Last year, Maj. Gen. Bob Lee, state adjutant general, said Hawaii chose to work the Arizona border because one of the 29th Brigade Combat Team's three battalions, the 158th Infantry Regiment, is based there.