California National Guard's border deployment comes to end

09:00 PM PDT on Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Press-Enterprise

SAN DIEGO - The observation posts are vacant, the National Guard helicopters that flew along the U.S.-Mexican border silent, the hammers and welders that beefed up the international boundary fence still.

After two years of a historic mission to strengthen the country's southern frontier and boost U.S. homeland security, members of the California National Guard are going home.

The border deployment, dubbed "Operation Jump Start," officially ends Tuesday, although a handful of Guard troops will remain in San Diego until the end of August writing final "after-action" reports.

The California contingent numbered 1,280, including more than 75 from the Inland area.

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Frank Bellino/The Press-Enterprise
California National Guard’s Master Sgt. Michael Drake stands next to the border fence that the California National Guard erected as part of Operation Jump Start on the California-Mexico border in San Diego.
Guard troops, many of them Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, refurbished nearly four miles of the 16-foot-high secondary fence running through and east of San Diego. They constructed 973 metal barriers in more remote areas of the border, which are designed to stop vehicles from crashing through. Guard troops flew U.S. Border Patrol agents to remote areas favored by immigrant smugglers with their Blackhawk and Huey helicopters.

The Guard manned observation posts around the clock, sometimes using night-vision scopes to spot illegal immigrants and radioing Border Patrol agents to intercept them.

The California National Guard was joined by about 5,000 other troops in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

'Tremendous Success'

Master Sgt. Michael Drake, a California Guard spokesman assigned to the San Diego sector, said Border Patrol statistics compiled during Operation Jump Start indicate the Guard was responsible for detaining and discouraging 164,000 illegal immigrants from entering the U.S. through California.

The Guard is credited with helping rescue 36 people injured and dehydrated while trying to cross into California, Drake said.

"It's been a tremendous success," Drake said. "A lot of people had misgivings when we came to the border. There was concern about the militarization of the border. But we were acting only in a supporting role, to free up Border Patrol agents so they could actually do patrol work. The operation has succeeded beyond expectations."

Gov. Schwarzenegger and the three other border governors wanted the National Guard presence continued, a request the Bush Administration declined. In a letter to the White House this year, California's Republican governor lauded the Guard's "tremendous success" in reducing human smuggling and illegal immigration.

Operation Jump Start drew worldwide media attention, Drake said. He said he conducted 300 tours for visiting newspaper, radio, television and Internet representatives, including reporters from Mexico, Japan, Korea, Spain and Hungary.

Different Views

Al Garza, national executive director for the Arizona-based border watch group Minuteman National Civil Defense Corps, said Operation Jump Start was beneficial but did not go far enough.

"Where the National Guard was stationed there was a 24 percent decrease," he said. "That in itself is not a success. What that's really telling us is that if we increase that number (of guards) it would seal the border in an instant."

He's also concerned that the departure of the National Guard will lead to an increase in illegal border crossings.

"We need to keep continuing" the effort to seal the border, he said. "Whatever it takes, we want the border secured."

Immigration rights advocate Armando Navarro said he was glad to see Operation Jump Start end. Militarizing the U.S. border with Mexico, which is supposed to be a U.S. ally, makes no sense, he said.

"It's contradictory, because we have the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is supposed to fuse our economy with Canada and Mexico," said Navarro, a UC Riverside professor and coordinator of the National Alliance for Human Rights.

Other factors, such as the U.S.'s struggling economy, also may have contributed to the decline in illegal border crossings, he said.

"The incentive for undocumented immigrants, while still there, isn't as attractive as it once was," Navarro said.

Inland Guardsmen

Spc. Marisol Vela, 23, spent 11 months working on the border. The Iraq war veteran lives in the Inland area, but Guard representatives asked that her hometown not be mentioned out of concern for her safety. She served as a spotter looking for people on the move into Calexico east of San Diego.

She worked in remote areas far from city lights, keeping in touch with Border Patrol dispatcher via radio. Groups of illegal immigrants became visible through night vision binoculars. When that happened, Vela notified the Border Patrol, directing them to the proper location.

"It was scary at times," Vela said. "You don't know what you're going to encounter. You've got to be alert all the time."

Vela spent parts of 2005-06 in Iraq, where she responded to numerous roadside bombings, earning a Combat Action Ribbon for her service. While not as dangerous, the work with Operation Jump Start provides its own sort of satisfaction.

"You see how things are on the border," she said. "You don't know who the enemy is, and you want to secure the border from people who want to harm the U.S."

Senior Master Sgt. Randy Peek, of Riverside, worked to keep the Border Patrol fleet rolling, supervising maintenance of 350 vehicles. Not a glamorous gig, but one that was essential.

"It's nice to be able to help out close to home," said Peek, 49, whose 32-year Guard career has taken him to France, Germany and to a deployment for Operation Iraqi Freedom. "I think we made a difference."

Reach Michelle L. Klampe at 951-893-2114 or

Reach Joe Vargo at 951-368-9289 or

Operation Jump Start

Mission: National Guard troops work side by side with civilian law enforcement over an extended period, a first.

Number of troops: 1,280 in California

Duties: Refurbishing border fence, building anti-vehicle barricades, flying aerial operations, spotting undocumented immigrants.

Completed: Five miles of primary and secondary fencing, 39 light towers, repairs to 35 miles of roads.

Impacts: Credited with 165,000 detentions and "turnbacks" of immigrants seeking entry.

Seizures: 39, 744 pounds of marijuana, 680 pounds of cocaine, 725 vehicles.