Sarah Armstrong, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and former naval officer, is an operations associate at the nonprofit group Protect Democracy.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in early December approved plans to extend the deployment of active-duty U.S. troops at the southern border from Dec. 15 until Jan. 31, taking the deployment through the holiday season. Scholars and pundits have debated the legalities of the decision to send the military to the border and the rules of engagement while there. These are serious questions, and I’m sure the conversations will continue long after the troops leave. But I worry that, lost amid both sides of the debate, is a basic fact about members of the military: They are people.
The troops don’t deserve to be used as pawns in a political game to rally the president’s base. The men and women in uniform that I worked beside every day as a junior naval officer warrant much more respect.
According to Military Times, 4,000 active-duty troops will remain on the border, spread across California, Arizona and Texas. These service members will repair and install wire barriers and provide transportation and security for Border Patrol agents.
They will also miss holidays with their families, while knowing that they are not fighting a war or serving a clear mission.
I have friends who recently returned from Afghanistan and may be deployed to the border on the technicality that it isn’t a foreign combat zone. So much for coming home. I know from my own experience that it’s much easier to maintain strong morale, even in tough times, when you believe that what you’re doing has a purpose.
When I was serving, I had faith that everyone up the chain of command, including the president, had the common goal of protecting Americans. Naturally, I didn’t always have a sense of the larger strategic plans behind the orders given. Many daily military tasks feel dumb and tedious, from shining boots to filing bureaucratic forms. But it was possible to perform the tasks knowing that we had a shared purpose. We used the catchphrase “embrace the suck” — you knew that these tasks fit into the larger mission. I wonder if service members today can say that.
Any doubt in the mind of a soldier, Marine, airman or sailor could be the difference between life or death — their own, or that of those they may confront. Not because they would deliberately defy an order, but because of the danger inherent in any hesitation during the split-second decisions that service members must make. That’s why it’s so vital that leadership never give those lower on the chain any reason to doubt their mission or their value. President Trump has consistently showed a lack of respect for the military and their families’ sacrifices. He has yet to visit service members overseas and has even publicly fought with Gold Star families of service members killed in the line of duty. With this president, his only mission seems to be serving himself.
Protecting the border is important — I don’t mean to diminish the work of those deployed there. Their presence could be essential to the safety of the Border Patrol agents and other federal workers who requested their help. But the U.S. military is by far the most trusted institution in the country, and that trust should not be endangered by deploying the military on missions that seem designed to serve the interests of a few instead of the American people as a whole.
This holiday season, I am fortunate and grateful to be with my family. But as I think about service members who are not so lucky, who didn’t ask to be at the border, I hope that Americans — including those in Congress and the White House — will spare a thought for them, and their sacrifice, amid the celebrations.