In the middle of a political minefield, the army prepares for the border for a migrant caravan

With a pair of bulldozers grumbling in front of him through the muddy ground, Staff Sgt. Kevin Barr observed how the austere beginnings of an army command camp on the southern border slowly gathered on Saturday.

After a night of rain and temperatures falling below 50 degrees, the open field in which they lived – land provided by customs and border protection of the United States – had turned into dusty and deadly chaos with the consistency of peanut butter .

The soldiers had hung the accordion barbed wire around the perimeter of the base, planted dozens of olive tents and lined up dozens of Humvees and heavy transport trucks in the last week, but not much had been done to prepare the mud in southern Texas. typically dusty.

"If we can get gravel, we can potentially start to grab some areas and try to put a road here," Barr said. "Because this clayey soil is quite thick."

The bad weather was the last surprise for the soldiers on a mission whose wheels moved in the middle of President Trump's electoral warnings that an "invasion" of migrants – many of them women and children – was northbound to the United States.

The deployment was cut short by the critics as a politically motivated gimmick to rally Trump's base for the mid-term elections, even though Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said at the end of last month that "we do not do political stunts" in the armed forces. . Less than a week later, the Pentagon has stripped the operation of its name – Fedele Patriota – among the complaints that it was openly political. Images of soldiers leaning over the accordion line at the border just before election day had just emerged.


A soldier stands in front of the flag during a training session in Donna's base camp. (Calla Kessler / The Washington Post)

Public attention has shifted from the mission in recent days while the president has focused on other issues. But the cumbersome military employment from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas continued despite questions about his need.

The caravan is still hundreds of miles from the border, and is proposed this week instead for Tijuana, about 1,500 miles to the west. The mission should extend until December 15, keeping soldiers away from families during Thanksgiving and close to Christmas.

About 5,600 service members had been sent starting Friday, according to the Pentagon. Approximately 2,800 are in Texas, including more than 1,000 in the Griffin Task Force, an army unit that has taken temporary roots in the Rio Grande Valley and has a group of leaders from the 89th Fort Hood Military Police Brigade , Tex.

Colonel Richard Ball, commander of the task force, looked for a press conference Friday at a border point in Hidalgo, Texas, to point out that the US military will not play a police role in the operation. This is considered a critical point due to the Posse Comitatus Act, which limits active troops to participate in such activities in most cases. US troops are expected to have "very little accidental contact" with migrants, he said, and will take over the leadership of CBP officials if this happens.

In Donna's base camp, soldiers are advised not to discuss politics, a common refrain in every operation. But they are also careful in answering questions about how many soldiers live there, how long they will stay exactly or what they will do. At least two soldiers disagree about Saturday if their work should be considered an explanation, considering they are still in the United States. The Pentagon press releases continue to say that service members are deployed for border support.

Captain Lauren Blanton, a car officer based in Fort Knox, Korea, said she arrived at Donna more than a week ago with three other soldiers, and found an open field. As "mayor", he supervised the installation of a trailer with 16 shower enclosures, curtains for a structure that can meet daily medical needs and a single, massive tent, which is generally used as a coffee shop for troops. However, given the number of soldiers passing through Donna, army officials instead transformed the large tent – the only one with heat in the camp – into housing for more soldiers.

On Saturday, more than 100 soldiers could be seen relaxing inside, some reading, others playing video games on their phones, others kicking and trying to solve a Rubik's Cube. Hundreds of shreds were scattered for at least 18 through a space larger than a hockey rink.

Captain Tim Smith, commander of the 977th Fort Riley military police company in Canada, said he and his soldiers arrived at Donna on Friday with buses from the San Antonio-Lackland base, more than 240 miles of distance. The unit received a few days of training there, he learned basic phrases in Spanish and how to use Google Translate, he said.

"We will potentially go somewhere else in the future, but right now, we do not know," he said.

One of Smith's soldiers, the sergeant. First class Steven Howd, said he anticipated that the company would formulate a training plan once they knew about their job.

"Actually I expected the conditions to be even more austere than that," he said, sitting on a cot. "I really expected to be even closer to the border and to provide any protection necessary for our engineers to do their job, but without a nice enough accommodation."

Outside the cold, Sgt. Dacmen Ma of Fort Hood's 1st Cavalry Division, watched as the bulldozers were making their magic in the mud. Once they pushed enough dirt into the docks, Ma's team of soldiers planned to install a massive air chamber for trucks, generators, and other equipment.

But, who grew up in Houston, he returned from an Iraq deployment in the past year, he said. He never expected to receive another job in the field a few hours from home.

"Most of the time," he said, "I would think I would be abroad somewhere."

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