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Families of Texas National Guard troops who die on duty during Operation Lone Star would receive a $500,000 death benefit if a bill approved by the Texas House on Tuesday becomes law.
The bill would also retroactively plug a hole exposed by Gov. Greg Abbott’s two-year-long border security mission, which has left the thousands of National Guard troops he sent to the Mexican border without the same protections as other law enforcement officers serving on the mission.
If Department of Public Safety troopers or Texas Parks and Wildlife Department game wardens die on duty during Operation Lone Star, their beneficiaries are guaranteed a lump sum of $500,000 in death benefits. But National Guard troops, who stand shoulder to shoulder with those law enforcement officers on the mission, are not guaranteed the same benefits. That’s because they have been activated on state orders, which — unlike federal orders — are paid by the state and do not include benefits such as free health care, G.I. bill benefits and help for survivors in case of on-duty deaths.
The legislation is named after Bishop Evans, a Texas Army National Guard soldier who died last April while rescuing migrants from the Rio Grande during his Operation Lone Star deployment. He was posthumously promoted to sergeant and awarded the Lone Star Medal of Valor at his funeral.
Evans’ family — including his grandmother Jo Ann Johnson, grandfather Dannie Johnson, and aunts Kynya Williams and Felisha Pullen — traveled from North Texas to Austin overnight to be present for the House vote.
Jo Ann Johnson thanked lawmakers for letting the bill’s language cover a broad spectrum of troops on state duty, including those who had already served on Operation Lone Star, those traveling to and from an assignment, and those who are training.
“It’s an honor that through our loss and our pain, something wonderful is coming out of this,” said Johnson, who said it was a privilege for the family to have a bill named after Evans. “We’re proud of his legacy. His name is going to be on this forever. It’s wonderful.”
House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican in his second session at the helm of the House, made the bill one of his legislative priorities.
“It’s a great day,” state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, who authored the bill, told The Texas Tribune. “I’m proud to work on Speaker Phelan’s priority bill, the Bishop Evans Act, especially with the family in the House gallery.”
The House gave initial approval Tuesday by a voice vote, which the chamber uses for uncontroversial items. The chamber still must give final approval, which is expected Wednesday, before the bill goes to the Senate.
There, it has the support of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, the upper chamber’s chief budget writer, who is shepherding the bill in the Senate.
Importantly, House lawmakers changed the bill to make it retroactive for all eligible families who had service members die during Operation Lone Star by adopting an amendment from Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction. That means Evans’ family would qualify for the death benefits if the bill becomes law.
Another amendment by Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, allows troops to designate a beneficiary for the money. In the case of Evans’ family, that beneficiary is his grandmother, Jo Ann Johnson.
Under a previous version of the bill, Evans’ family and those of others who died while deployed to Operation Lone Star would not have qualified for death benefits. Evans’ family had asked lawmakers to reconsider.
Evans, who came from a military family, bought a personal life insurance policy before deploying that helped cover his funeral costs. But his grandmother said his family still had to pay off his debts, and they lost a contributing member to the household.
Under another amendment by Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, the benefit would expand to include the family of another soldier assigned to Operation Lone Star, Spc. DaJuan Townes, who died in an accidental shooting on Feb. 7, 2022, at Fort Clark Springs near Brackettville.
Townes, a 19-year-old horizontal construction engineer from Spring, was sitting in a fellow soldier’s car during a swim training event. He was handing a personally owned handgun to a soldier sitting behind him in the vehicle when it fired a round through the seat and into his back, according to documents obtained by Military Times.
Bell’s amendment adds death benefits for troops, such as Townes, who died while attending training events. Efforts to reach members of Townes’ family were unsuccessful.
Another amendment from Patterson also covers death benefits for troops who die while traveling during the mission, even during authorized personal trips away from the border.
Suicides would likely not be covered under the legislation.
The state’s military leaders have asked the Legislature for years to provide guaranteed death benefits to troops on state active duty. In the two previous sessions, former Rep. John Cyrier, a Lockhart Republican who serves in the Texas State Guard, filed legislation to do just that. Lawmakers failed to pass those bills.
But this year, the lack of death benefits is being more heavily scrutinized, largely due to Evans’ death. An investigation by The Texas Tribune and Military Times revealed that Evans did not have flotation devices or water rescue equipment when he jumped into the river. The potentially fatal lack of key equipment added to the myriad issues troops have faced on Operation Lone Star, including pay problems, poor living conditions and a rash of suspected suicides tied to the mission.
Those issues led to the replacement of the Texas Military Department’s top leader, Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris. Since her departure, the department has nearly eliminated its pay problems and sent thousands of troops home who had been called up involuntarily, while finding ways to reduce the mission’s size to about 4,000 troops. But the department has had to ask lawmakers for multiple payments of about $500 million to keep the operation going because the mission is more expensive than lawmakers originally thought.
Most National Guard troops serve part time and have civilian jobs. They’re usually called to help in emergency situations — such as hurricanes, tornadoes or crowd control — and historically have been used for short-term deployments that last weeks at the most. Long-term missions usually have months of notice and come with federal benefits, such as no-cost health care and education funding.
In 2021, Abbott activated thousands of soldiers to the border for involuntary deployments of up to a year at a time, some of them with only 72-hour notice. At one point, Abbott said there were 10,000 troops deployed to the border. (In reality, there were roughly 6,500, with others scattered throughout the state for logistical help.)
Abbott has not commented publicly on the bill.
On top of the rushed deployment, those troops were often met with poor work and living conditions once they got to the border. Their pay wasn’t coming on time or was frequently short, and their loved ones back home began worrying about their lack of benefits.
Heriberto Rodriguez, police chief of Kempner in Central Texas, told lawmakers in testimony on March 16 that he had driven to the Capitol to advocate for one of his police officers who had been deployed to the border.
“I’m here because I learned that if something happens to my friend and officer, there would be no line-of-duty benefits for his family,” Rodriguez said. “I was quite surprised to find out.”
Patterson’s bill goes beyond previous efforts to improve benefits for troops on state active duty. His legislation also expands worker’s compensation to cover post-traumatic stress disorder developed during state active duty and expedites workplace injury claims filed by troops.
Davis Winkie is a senior reporter covering the Army. He focuses on investigations, personnel concerns and military justice. Davis, also a Guard veteran, was a finalist in the 2023 Livingston Awards for his work with The Texas Tribune investigating the National Guard's border missions. He studied history at Vanderbilt and UNC-Chapel Hill.