State officials said Wednesday that a Texas National Guard member who drowned while on duty at the US-Mexico border was not wearing a flotation device when he jumped into the Rio Grande to assist a migrant struggling to swim across.
Spc. Bishop Evans, who had been missing for three days before his body was discovered Monday, was one of over 6,100 guard members stationed on the border as part of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s massive border security operation known as Operation Lone Star. According to Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, the mission has 43 flotation devices for guard members assigned to boat missions. Evans was not a member of the boat’s crew.
Suelzer told lawmakers in the Texas Capitol that requests for additional flotation devices were made in February but were delayed due to supply chain issues. The lawmakers were confronted with questions about Evans’ death, low morale, and equipment shortages that have dogged the yearlong mission. Guard leaders defended not issuing flotation devices to all soldiers, claiming that many are stationed on land.
Suelzer stated that guard members have been instructed not to enter the water without special training in the aftermath of Evans’ death.
“He was a person,” Suelzer stated. “When he saw a person drowning, he leapt into the water to save them.”
The Border Patrol frequently rescues migrants along Texas’ 1,200-mile (1,930-kilometer) border with Mexico. Attempts at crossing are occasionally fatal.
Brig. Gen. Monie Ulis stated that guard members typically remain on the banks to assist migrants and that he could recall only four or five instances of guard members entering the water.
Evans is at least the fifth guard member to die on the mission, including suicides, according to state Senator Roland Gutierrez, a Democrat who has called for an inquest into the deaths. The mission, which involves thousands of state troopers, patrol boats on the Rio Grande, and surveillance aircraft, costs the state more than $2 million per day, according to Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw.
Abbott granted guard members unusual detention and arrest authority last year, but the majority of the mission’s personnel are assigned to observation posts. Guard leaders acknowledged morale issues, such as equipment shortages and substandard living conditions, but stated that recent months have seen improvements.
“Average morale is around a seven,” Ulis explained. “Much higher than when we began.”