Over the last week, U.S. troops sent to the southern border ahead of a migrant caravan have built a temporary base camp near this rural crossing.
On Saturday, military officers provided a briefing on their mission while touring the camp, which now includes a massive heated tent, kitchen, showers, laundry and clinic.
They strode past rows of Humvees and other heavy equipment. Some soldiers loaded fuel trucks; others repaired generators that run the camp, served up a breakfast of sausage and grits or prepared concertina wire to string between border crossings. Of 5,600 troops sent to the border, 2,800 are in Texas, a thousand in the Rio Grande Valley.
At the edge of this tiny town of nearly 17,000, the camp stands out, raised on a grassy expanse the size of several football fields. Residents have stopped to snap photos and drop off homemade tamales. No protesters or militias have appeared. Soldiers guard the camp’s entrances. Military police, such as those guarding the gates, are armed, as they normally are at military installations. Soldiers have not been sent to defend the border, spokesmen said: U.S. Customs and Border Protection is responsible for that.
“I wouldn’t refer to this as a deployment. When the hurricanes happened, we did humanitarian response. This is like that,” said Sgt. Brian Rodan, 30, a North Carolina native sent from Ft. Riley, Kan.
Rodan, like others at Base Camp Donna, had previously been deployed overseas, to Iraq. Now, it’s much easier to stay in touch with his wife and daughters, ages 8 and 3.
President Trump’s decision to send troops to the border has stirred controversy, but Rodan and other soldiers said that hasn’t extended to their families.
“They understand I’m a soldier, and I have a job to do,” he said.
Troops will not be expected to confront the caravan. But there is a chance that soldiers will stumble across immigrants in the field, and they’re prepared, said Maj. Derek Wamsley.
“We don’t anticipate that we will, but if we do, it’s Customs and Border protection’s job to interact with them. Our soldiers are instructed to notify authorities,” said Wamsley, a spokesman sent from Ft. Lewis, Wash.
Troops could end up treating immigrants, if called upon to do so by the Border Patrol. They have already set up a military clinic with four doctors, two physician’s assistants, a nurse, dentist and behavioral health specialist in a heated tent with space for 40. As of Saturday they had only treated troops with minor injuries, said Lt. Lee Dimaculangan, 32.
Dimaculangan is based at Ft. Lewis, but is originally from Houston, 350 miles north — too far for family to visit even if he had time, which he doesn’t. He has deployed to Afghanistan during his 13 years in the Army, but had never been to the border before, and speaks little Spanish.
“It’s nice that I’m close to home, but Texas is a big state,” he said, smiling.
Sgt. Amanda Pacheco, 27, of Oceanside, arrived at the camp with a military police company based outside El Paso at Ft. Bliss. She had been pulling gate duty, eating MREs — military meals ready to eat — and sleeping in a tent as the temperature dipped from the 90s Thursday to the 40s Saturday.
“I did not expect it to be so cold,” she said, shivering as a light rain fell from gray skies.
Pacheco has been in contact with her family — a bonus of being sent somewhere with cellphone reception and Internet. They ask about her welfare as the migrants make their way north through Mexico toward the border.
“As long as I’m safe, that’s all they’re worried about,” she said.
Silvestre Arroyo, a brigade food service technician, has family on both sides of the border. His father moved to the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico. His mother is from the Rio Grande Valley. Born here in south Texas, Arroyo, 30, was raised in St. James, Minn., and is based at Ft. Hood with his family of four.
As the child of an immigrant, Arroyo doesn’t feel conflicted about being sent to the border, and said his relatives in Mexico understand.
“I’m here to do a job,” he said. “It’s like any other time I’m called to perform a mission.”