DONNA BASE CAMP, Tex. – With a pair of bulldozers romping through muddy terrain in front of him, Staff Sgt. Kevin Barr watched the cold start of an army camp on the southern border slowly gather on Saturday.
After a night of rain and temperatures plunging below 50 degrees, the open field they were living in the countryside provided by US Customs and Border Patrol had become a gusty, tangled mess with the consistency of peanut butter.
Soldiers had lined up jagged accordion wire around the perimeter of the base, pitching dozens of olive tents and setting up dozens of humvees and heavy tugs last week, but little had been done to prepare for mud in typically dusty South Texas.
"If we can get some gravel we may be able to start gravel driving and try to build a road here," Barr said. "Because this clay dirt is pretty thick."
The harsh weather was the last surprise for soldiers in a mission whose wheels had moved when President Trump warned in the election season that an "invasion" of migrants – many of them actually women and children – headed for the US towards the US headed.
The mission was cited by critics as a politically motivated stunt for the accumulation of Trump's base for the midterm elections, even as Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said at the end of last month that "we are not doing any political stunts". Less than a week later, the Pentagon robbed its name – Faithful Patriot – on complaints that it was obviously political. Pictures of soldiers stretching a concertina wire on the border just before election day had just surfaced.
Public attention has moved away from the mission in recent days as the president has focused on other issues. But the cumbersome deployment of the military from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, USA, continued despite questions about its necessity.
The caravan is still hundreds of miles from the border, and instead this week is driven to Tijuana, about 1,500 miles to the west. The mission is expected to continue through December 15, keeping soldiers away from families through Thanksgiving and just before Christmas.
According to the Pentagon, around 5,600 service members were dropped on Friday. More than 2,800 are in Texas, including more than 1,000 in Task Force Griffin, an army unit that has temporary roots in the Rio Grande Valley and a corps of leaders of the 89th Military Police Brigade of Fort Hood, Texas.
Colonel Richard Ball, the task force commander, tried to stress in a press conference at a border crossing point in Hidalgo, Texas, Friday that the US military would not play a role in law enforcement during the operation. This is considered a sticking point because of the Posse Comitatus Act, which in most cases restricts the participation of active troops in such activities. US troops are expected to have "very little contact" with migrants and to take on the CBP function if that is the case.
At base camp in Donna, soldiers are advised against discussing politics, which is common in any operation. But they are also careful in answering questions about how many soldiers live there, how long they will stay or what they will do. At least two soldiers were dissatisfied on Saturday as to whether their work should be considered as an assignment, considering that they are still in the United States. Press releases from the Pentagon continue to say that service members are being used to assist at the border.
Captain Lauren Blanton, an engineering officer based in Fort Knox, Kentucky, said she arrived in Donna with three other soldiers more than a week ago and found an open field. As mayor, she has since been responsible for the installation of a trailer with 16 shower cubicles, tents for a facility that meets daily medical needs, and a single, massive tent that usually serves as a cafeteria for troops. In the face of the number of soldiers passing through Donna, army officials instead transformed the large tent – the only one with heat in the camp – into living space for more soldiers.
More than 100 soldiers relaxed on Saturday, some read, others played video games on their mobile phones, others threw themselves for a football and one tries to solve a Rubik cube. Hundreds of cribs were spread over at least 18 across an area larger than a hockey rink.
Captain Tim Smith, commander of the 977th Military Police Company in Fort Riley, Canada, said he and his soldiers arrived in Donna on Friday from buses from the San Antonio-Lackland joint base more than 240 miles away. The unit received a few days of training there, learned basic phrases in Spanish and the use of Google Translate, he said.
"We may go somewhere else in the future, but right now we do not know," he said.
One of Smith's Soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Steven Howd said he expected the company to formulate a training plan once they knew their mission.
"I expected the conditions to be even more severe than here," he said, sitting down on a cot. "I really expected to be even closer to the limit and to provide the necessary protection our engineers need for their work, but without any nice accommodations."
Out in the cold, Sgt. Dacmen Ma of the 1st Cavalry Division in Fort Hood watched as the bulldozers performed their magic in the mud. After pouring enough dirt into the basins, Ma's soldiers planned a massive fuel bladder for trucks, generators, and other equipment.
Ma, who grew up in Houston, returned from a deployment in Iraq last year, he said. He had never expected to receive another assignment just hours from home.
"The majority of the time," he said, "I think I would be abroad somewhere."