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The Texas Tribune
The Texas Tribune
James Barragán

Unanimous Texas Senate supports death benefits for National Guard serving along southern border

Texas National Guard and Texas DPS officers position themselves on the banks of the Rio Grande, Tuesday, December 20, 2022, in El Paso, Texas. Over 400 personnel have been sent to this border sector by Governor Abbott after El Paso city officials declared a state of emergency. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
Texas National Guard service members position themselves on the bank of the Rio Grande last year in El Paso. (Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune)

Texas National Guard service members on state missions like Operation Lone Star would be guaranteed a $500,000 death benefit if they die in the line of duty under a bill approved Friday by a unanimous Texas Senate.

The bill would give guaranteed death benefits to National Guard troops on state deployment, putting them on par with benefits offered to law enforcement officers serving on Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security mission. Currently, soldiers and airmen on Operation Lone Star are not guaranteed death benefits because they are serving on state, not federal, orders.

The issue came to light in April 2022 when Bishop Evans, a 22-year-old soldier serving on Operation Lone Star, died while trying to rescue migrants from the Rio Grande. He was posthumously promoted to sergeant and awarded the Lone Star Medal of Valor at his funeral.

Evans had a life insurance policy that helped his family pay for his funeral costs, but his death highlighted the need to provide death benefits to state troops on the mission.

House Bill 90 by Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, was dubbed the Bishop Evans Act and his family traveled to Austin from North Texas to support the bill. Last month, the House made the bill retroactive so it could apply to Evans and other soldiers who died while serving on Operation Lone Star.

“This bill is named after Sergeant Bishop Evans, who drowned in the Rio Grande River while on active duty attempting to rescue individuals who were attempting to swim across the river,” Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said before Friday’s vote. “He was certainly a hero, and I’m proud to present this bill to the Senate.”

About 4,000 troops continue to serve on the border security mission, which began in March 2021. Problems have included late or missing pay for the troops, squalid living conditions and a rash of suicides tied to the mission. The Legislature has spent more than $4 billion on Operation Lone Star, blowing past the budget it set for the mission in 2021.

House Speaker Dade Phelan made the legislation one of his session priorities.

The Senate made some amendments to the bill to clarify language on how the money would be paid out. Patterson, author of the bill, said he expects to ask the House to approve the Senate changes to send HB 90 to Abbott, who can sign the bill, let it become law without his signature or veto it.

The bill’s passage would end a yearslong effort by the state’s military leaders to persuade lawmakers to provide death benefits for National Guard troops on state active-duty missions. Former state Rep. John Cyrier, a Republican from Lockhart who serves in the Texas State Guard, had tried the past two sessions to pass death benefit legislation, but those efforts failed to gain momentum.

Patterson’s bill goes beyond previous efforts by expanding worker’s compensation to cover post-traumatic stress disorder developed during state active duty and by expediting workplace injury claims filed by troops.

If the bill becomes a law, it would go into effect in September, and families of troops who died as part of Operation Lone Star could begin applying for death benefits.

Erin Douglas contributed reporting.

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