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Maryland aviators protect southwest border from above

SW Border Mission, Harlingen, Texas

By Staff Sgt. Aimee Fujikawa, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

Maryland National Guard aviators participated in a stateside deployment in support of Operation Phalanx/River Watch II in Harlingen, Texas. The National Guard’s mission was to conduct aerial detection and monitoring to disrupt Transnational Criminal Organizations and Drug Trafficking Organizations in support of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The mission here is different than one that is overseas. Each aviator volunteered for this mission, and for some it’s the second time.

“We joined the Maryland National Guard to serve our state and protect our homeland. That’s exactly what this mission does,” said Capt. S., a Maryland National Guard UH-72A pilot. “This is a stateside mission defending the homeland and we are very excited about it.”

That same excitement for the mission helped to foster a close-knit community between the soldiers in the operation.

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“We are a passionate group who believes in what we are doing,” said Capt. S. “The results of the mission leads to taking illegal narcotics and weapons off the street.”

The Rio Grande’s twisting and turning waterway creates a natural border that extends 1,896 miles. It can provide anyone crossing the opportunities to avoid detection and evade U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents. It covers a 135,439 square-mile terrain that includes ravines, foliage, and dense agricultural crops that reach beyond overhead.

Maj. Gen. Linda Singh, the adjutant general of Maryland, toured the operation and visited soldiers. The pilots provide daytime and nighttime visual capability, which is essential in detecting activity not seen by border patrol agents on foot.

“I was able to see how easy it is for someone to come across the border. It’s such a difficult place for border patrol agents to protect,” Singh said. “I think it’s critical that we continue to provide this support. That gives them [CBP] the ability to protect the border and allows them to be even safer. Not just safe for them [CBP] but those who come across.”

People, including families with children, risk their lives trying to cross the river.

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“I am very sympathetic for the foreigners apprehend[ed]. They’re people, just like you and me, who are seeking a better life for themselves and their children,” said Capt. S. “While there may be innocent civilians trying to cross the border, there are also drug smugglers, as well as other criminals, that are trying to come across too.”

Providing support for Operation Phalanx is beneficial for Maryland Guardsmen.

“Our primary customer is [CBP] and the relationship we’ve built with them is fantastic,” said Capt. S. “There is an excellent mutual respect, and we are all one team. We are one team fighting for one cause, to secure the borders. It’s a great experience.”

The soldiers gained valuable real-world experience, improved their proficiency, and the working relationship between the Guard and the Department of Homeland Security agencies has strengthened.

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“We are constantly flying here so the timing is a lot quicker, giving you the chance to do the same task repeatedly,” said one Maryland National Guard aircraft mechanic who recently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan and Kuwait. “It’s leaps and bounds what you might learn in a 6-month period.”

Operation Phalanx is an on-going mission. In each rotation, National Guard units from across the country will participate in the mission and provide many hours per month of flight support and criminal analyst support.

“The National Guard’s presence has greatly improved the Border Patrol’s, and other law enforcement agencies, ability to stem the illicit smuggling and flows of people, drugs, weapons, and bulk cash across the U.S./Mexico border,” a Texas Military Department spokesperson said. “We will continue to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection as long as the Department of Homeland Security requests our support.”

Since March 2012, the National Guard has assisted with approximately 87,000 observations, 61,000 apprehensions, 17,000 turn-backs, and seized 75,000 pounds of narcotics.

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***The full names of those interviewed are withheld by request of the Texas Military Forces to protect the service members currently serving in the operation.