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Technical duties for state guardsmen on Mexican border

By M.J. Ellington · (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY – National Guard duty along the Mexican border is not your father’s idea of a military mission.

And the tools you use if you are a typical Alabama guard member on duty there probably do not fit his idea of a soldier’s equipment.

Think $5,000 walkie-talkies. Think satellite radios. Think hydraulic tree stands on mobile trailers equipped with night vision cameras and motion detectors. At the end of your day, think comfortable hotel room miles from the border instead of a tent on desert sand.

Alabama, like other states, sends members of the National Guard to the country’s border with Mexico to coordinate communications and help spot people trying to enter the country illegally. Like other Gulf Coast states, Alabama’s participants in Operation Jump-Start would come home if a disaster such as a hurricane struck the state.

President Bush called for continuing National Guard presence along the border in his State of the Union address last week. That will mean a demand for more Alabama guard members to go to the border through 2008.

“The most important thing we do is give those guys down in the dirt a way to talk to the outside world. We aren’t there to apprehend; that is the border patrol’s job,” said Tech. Sgt. Ryan Putteet of the 232nd Air National Guard communications squadron based in Montgomery.

Putteet of Prattville went to Las Cruces, N.M., in August with the first group of the Alabama guard members sent to set up a central communications system for the guard and border patrol to communicate better.

Miles from the border on an average work day, Putteet said, his duty involved setting up computers and communications equipment at a central command center in Las Cruces. At the end of each workday, he returned to a hotel room in the city.

Putteet said not all jobs at the border are like his. While Alabama’s Air National Guard members are most involved with communications command centers, Putteet said, the Army National Guard from some states has more people near the border “in the sand and sweat.”

Most of Alabama’s Army National Guard units are involved in action on another desert, in Iraq. The guard also does surveillance near the border atop hydraulic observation platforms that resemble mechanical “tree stands” that hunters sometimes use in Alabama woods. Equipped with infrared cameras, high-tech binoculars and motion detectors, the platforms provide a way for the guard to spot activity along the border where entry is illegal.

“They free up the border patrol to apprehend people trying to cross the border,” Putteet said. One task of Alabama’s communications experts involves setting motion detection devices to screen out small animals, so border patrol officers do not respond to motion from a rabbit or other animal of similar size, he said.

While some parts of the border with Mexico are in cities with access to back-up help, Putteet said, the many border patrol stations in remote areas of the desert present different challenges.

“They are sitting in the middle of the desert and sometimes they need somebody to talk to,” Putteet said.

Sometimes the need may be as simple as a badly cut finger or low water supplies. Sometimes the patrol agent may need to call for help apprehending 20 people crossing the border illegally at the same time.

Since August, the Alabama Air National Guard has sent 106 people for border patrol support in Arizona and New Mexico, said Lt. Col. Robert Horton, state guard spokesman.

Horton said Alabama now has 18 people along the border with another 22 to go there in the next 15 to 30 days. So far, all of Alabama’s troops are volunteers who used their annual two-week training period for border duty. All but a few of the people sent to the border from Alabama are from the Air National Guard, Horton said.

Alabama, along with the guard in other states, expects to send small groups to the border for 15- to 30-day rotations through 2008, Horton said. President Bush asked states for the guard’s help to bolster support services for the country’s thinly staffed border patrol in states that border Mexico. The federal government, not the state, pays all expenses for National Guard border duty, Horton said.

Operation Jump Start

  • Alabama National Guardsmen sent to the Mexican border since August: 106.

  • Average service at the border: 15 to 30 days.

  • Number of Alabama guardsmen at the border now: 18.

  • 22 more will go in 15 to 30 days.

  • Federal funds pay for border service.

    Alabama National Guard

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