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Amid a political minefield, the Army prepares at the border for a migrant caravan

Soldiers play cards in their tent at the base camp along the Mexican border in Donna, Tex., on  Saturday.
Soldiers play cards in their tent at the base camp along the Mexican border in Donna, Tex., on Saturday. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

DONNA BASE CAMP, Tex. — With a pair of bulldozers rumbling in front of him through muddy terrain, Staff Sgt. Kevin Barr observed as the austere beginnings of an Army headquarters camp at the southern border slowly came together Saturday.

After a night of rain and temperatures plummeting below 50 degrees, the open field they were living in — land provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection — had turned into a gusty, mucky mess with the consistency of peanut butter.

Soldiers had strung jagged concertina wire around the base’s perimeter, pitched dozens of olive-green tents and lined up dozens of Humvees and heavy hauler trucks in the past week, but nothing much had been done yet to prepare for mud in typically dusty South Texas.

“If we can get some gravel, we can potentially start graveling some of the areas and try to put a road here,” Barr said. “Because this clay dirt is pretty thick.”

The raw weather was the latest surprise for soldiers in a mission whose wheels shifted into motion amid President Trump’s election-season warnings that an “invasion” of migrants — many of them actually women and children — was heading north for the United States.

The deployment has been panned by critics as a politically motivated stunt to rally Trump’s base for the midterm elections, even as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said late last month that “we don’t do political stunts” in the military. Less than a week later, the Pentagon stripped the operation of its name — Faithful Patriot — amid complaints that it was overtly political. Images of soldiers stretching out concertina wire at the border just before Election Day had just surfaced.

Former generals worry that Trump’s border mission uses troops as a political tool

Public attention has shifted away from the mission in recent days as the president has focused on other issues. But the military’s lumbering deployment from San Diego to Brownsville, Tex., has continued despite questions about its necessity.

The caravan is still hundreds of miles from the border, and it set out this week instead for Tijuana, some 1,500 miles to the west. The mission is expected to extend through Dec. 15, keeping soldiers away from families through Thanksgiving and close to Christmas.

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

Col. Richard Ball, the task force commander, sought in a news conference Friday at a border point in Hidalgo, Tex., to stress that the U.S. military will not have a law enforcement role in the operation. That is considered a sticking point because of the Posse Comitatus Act, which restricts active-duty troops from participating in such activities in most cases. U.S. troops are expected to have “very little to incidental contact” with migrants, he said, and will take the direction of CBP officials if it occurs.

At the base camp in Donna, soldiers are counseled against discussing politics, a common refrain in any operation. But they also are careful in answering questions about how many soldiers live there, how long exactly they’ll remain or what they’ll be doing. At least two soldiers disagreed Saturday about whether their work should even be considered a deployment, considering they are still in the United States. News releases from the Pentagon continue to say that service members are deployed for border support.

Capt. Lauren Blanton, an engineer officer stationed at Fort Knox, Ky., said she arrived in Donna more than a week ago with three other soldiers and found an open field. As “camp mayor,” she has since overseen the installation of a trailer with 16 shower stalls, tents for a facility meeting day-to-day medical needs, and a single, massive tent that typically is used as a cafeteria for troops. However, given the number of soldiers coming through Donna, Army officials instead turned the large tent — the only one with heat in the camp — into living quarters for more soldiers.

On Saturday, more than 100 soldiers could be seen relaxing inside, some reading, others playing video games on their phones, still others tossing around a football, and one attempting to solve a Rubik’s Cube. Hundreds of cots were spread out at least 18 across over a space larger than a hockey rink.

Capt. Tim Smith, commander of the 977th Military Police Company of Fort Riley, Kan., said he and his soldiers arrived at Donna on Friday on buses from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, more than 240 miles away. The unit received a few days of training there, learning basic phrases in Spanish and how to use Google Translate, he said.

“Potentially we’re going somewhere else in the future, but right now, we don’t know,” he said.

One of Smith’s soldiers, 1st Sgt. Steven Howd, said he anticipated that the company would formulate a training plan once they knew their assignment.

“I actually expected the conditions to be even more austere than this,” he said, sitting on a cot. “I was really anticipating being even closer to the border and providing whatever force protection was necessary for our engineers to do their job, but without accommodations quite this nice.”

Outside in the cold, Sgt. Dacmen Ma of the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood watched the bulldozers work their magic in the mud. Once they pushed enough dirt into berms, Ma’s team of soldiers planned to set up a massive fuel bladder for trucks, generators and other equipment.

Ma, who grew up in Houston, returned from a deployment to Iraq last year, he said. He never anticipated that he’d receive another assignment in the field just a few hours away from home.

“The majority of the time,” he said, “I’d think I’d be overseas somewhere.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect rank for 1st Sgt. Steven Howd.