Burial funds, lack of life insurance in spotlight after GI’s death

Gov. Greg Abbott last week ordered flags in the Texas Capitol lowered in honor of Spc. Bishop Evans, the soldier who recently died trying to rescue two migrants in the Rio Grande.

But even as the governor issued the order, a former Texas National Guard commander said Evans, 22, of Arlington, wasn’t getting the respect he deserved from state leaders.

“The Texas National Guard lost a hero and a combat veteran on State Active Duty, SPC Bishop Evans. That hurts all of us,” retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Nichols tweeted. “Ask Texas to provide his family with the life insurance and burial honors that our veterans get when they lose their life in combat. Por favor. Thank you.”

Evans’ death has prompted lawmakers to dust off a plan to create a fund for fallen guardsmen when the Legislature agrees in January. The comments from Nichols, who worked under both Abbott and former Gov. Rick Perry, were a blunt criticism of state leaders’ failure to ensure that the families of guardsmen on state active duty be compensated when they die.

While the families of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty can receive $500,000 under the Texas Government Code, guardsmen cannot. Soldiers and airmen in the guard can buy life insurance policies, but are not required to.

The 22,700-strong Texas Guard, the nation’s largest, has not said if Evans was the first soldier to die on state active duty since Operation Lone Star began in March 2021. Commanders at Camp Mabry have not said if Evans had a Servicemembers Group Life Insurance policy, the kind typically offered to troops in war zones

The law offering benefits to failed first responders might be modified to include guardsmen. Separately, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, intends to submit the Bishop Evans Act, which would create a special fund to create a death benefit to troops serving in Operation Lone Star.

The Texas Guard’s public affairs office, did not respond to questions raised last week. Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan also did not respond.

Lt.Gov. Patrick supports a death benefit for guardsman, and he “hopes both chambers can find an agreement during the upcoming legislative session,” a spokesman said.

All guardsmen are eligible for SGLI, but have to pay the required monthly premiums in order to maintain coverage, a National Guard official said. A bill in the US House would amend two sections of the US Code to extend benefits to guardsmen.

HR 4247 would enable National Guard service members who are injured or become disabled while on state active-duty orders to be eligible for VA health care and a Defense Department disability pension. Today, troops on state active-duty receive no Defense Department or VA compensation if they are injured.

If they die and are enrolled in SGLI, Nichols said, their families are granted benefits.

The issue of “benefit parity” for guardsmen was front and center last week at a joint hearing of the House Homeland Security & Public Safety and Defense and Veterans Affairs committees in Austin.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer, the Texas Guard commander, said at the hearing the guard would need another $531 million to support Operation Lone Star from May 1 through Aug. 31, the end of the state fiscal year. On Friday, the state shifted $495 million from other agencies to the border mission to help fill the gap.

There have been five casualties so far connected with Operation Lone Star. Prior to Evans’ death, four guardsmen committed suicide.

Legislative failures

Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer is the commander of the Texas Guard.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Suelzer is the commander of the Texas Guard.

The concern about death benefits for troops on state active-duty missions weighs on Nichols, a one-time F-16 pilot with combat time in Iraq. He said he sent tweets to Abbott, Cornyn, Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Chip Roy, all Texas Republicans, in hopes of sparking a discussion about how to cover state active-duty troops and intended to be “equally sharp to all of them.”

“I was just being blunt,” explained Nichols, who fruitlessly pushed for measures over the years to require that guardsmen receive the death benefit. “I didn’t want to sugarcoat it at all, I just wanted (to say), ‘Look, you don’t know this but these folks are not covered. Y’all need to get together and have a discussion.’”

The Legislature twice failed to ensure soldiers and airmen sent on dangerous missions were covered by insurance in the event of their deaths. Measures to provide state death benefits to guardsmen’s families, spearheaded by state Rep. John Cyrier, died in legislative sessions in 2019 and last year.

Nichols said he’s sought legislation to provide those benefits since 2016, but the issue has become even more relevant as Abbott has increasingly turned to guard missions requiring state active-duty troops that go well beyond seasonal responses to hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters. Those tend to be limited, short-term missions running a few weeks to a month.

Other former Texas adjunct generals, including retired Army Maj. Gen. Wayne Marty, who led the guard from 2002-05, says the death benefit is necessary given the scope of missions now being ordered.

“I think Nichols is right,” said Marty, who ordered medical missions to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and rabies control operations in South Texas. “I think it’s time to look at that. If they’re going to continue to have people on state active duty, if there is not any coverage there should be coverage.”

Operation Lone Star has placed 6,128 guardsmen on the border, with an additional 3,700 elsewhere, making it the organization’s largest mission in decades. The state also has assigned 1,600 troops to the border.

Until last year, Texas Guard border forays had a relatively small footprint. One mission was ordered in 2014 by then-Gov. Perry, who dispatched 1,000 troops to be “the tip of the spear in protecting Americans from these cartels and gangs.”

Troops in the current mission have complained about a variety of problems that range from cramped sleeping quarters and no portable restrooms at remote observation posts to problems getting paid. Suelzer, their commander, told the legislative committee those issues had mostly been resolved.

The servicemembers insurance covers active-duty members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard, as well as cadets and midshipmen of US military academies or those in the Reserve Officers Training Corps engaged in authorized training and practice cruises.

It’s also available to those in the National Guard and the Ready Reserve who are assigned to a unit and scheduled to perform at least 12 periods of inactive training per year. Guardsmen have been briefly released from Operation Lone Star so they can attend most of their weekend drills, which they need to show up for in order to earn retirement points.

Volunteers in an Individual Ready Reserve mobilization category and commissioned members of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the US Public Health Service qualify as well.

Nichols said he learned through a person in the Texas Guard that Evans, a veteran of deployments to Iraq and Kuwait, had an SGLI policy. As a veteran, Evans’ family may also be entitled to VA burial benefits that include a resting place at a state or national veterans cemetery and coverage of other burial costs.

Evans’ family could not be reached for comment.

The Texas Guard troops Abbott has sent to the border in Operation Lone Star on state active-duty orders still have options for insurance even if they do not get an SGLI policy, but they have to purchase it. They can obtain a state-sponsored life insurance policy through the National Guard Association of Texas that runs from $10,000 to $50,000.

Premiums range from $3.66 to $17 a month.

Nichols recalls long conversations with guardsmen trying to convince them to purchase an insurance policy.

Cyrier, R-Lockhart, a captain in the Texas Guard, believes Evans’ death will tip the scales for benefits in next year’s Legislature.

“Unfortunately now with Sgt. Evans death, everybody is now quite aware of what is going on and I feel very confident that the next legislative session they will pass not only the death benefit but also any other type of benefits that help,” said Cyrier , who did not seek re-election this year.

Pressuring lawmakers

The Texas National Guard keeps an eye on the Rio Grande from a hilltop on a ranch north of Eagle Pass on Jan. 11, 2022. While the families of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty can receive $500,000 under the Texas Government Code, guardsmen cannot. Soldiers and airmen in the guard can buy life insurance policies, but are not required to.

The Texas National Guard keeps an eye on the Rio Grande from a hilltop on a ranch north of Eagle Pass on Jan. 11, 2022. While the families of police and firefighters killed in the line of duty can receive $500,000 under the Texas Government Code, guardsmen cannot. Soldiers and airmen in the guard can buy life insurance policies, but are not required to.

Jerry Lara/San Antonio Express-News

State Rep. Richard Pena Raymond, D-Laredo, said the key is to amend the government code.

“I think several of us have talked and we will be pushing it, and I’m sure we will pass it in the House, I feel confident of that,” said Raymond, chairman of the defense and veterans affairs committee.

He’d like to make the bill retroactive, so Evans’ family can receive the benefit. But Gutierrez, the senator whose border district includes the area where the young soldier died and is an ardent foe of Operation Lone Star, said his measure would sidestep retroactively providing benefits by giving the guard’s adjutant general the right to disburse $500,000 to the beneficiary of Evans and other troops who die in the line of duty.

“This is not just a time for thoughts and prayers,” said Gutierrez, a former chairman of the House Defense and Veterans Affairs committee. “It’s a time for people calling us for solutions, and much of Operation Lone Star over the last year plus three months has been one political stunt after the other at the expense of taxpayers, at the expense of due process and unfortunately at the expense of four, and now five, five soldiers culminating in the drowning of Bishop Evans.”

Nichols stays away from the politics of the operation. For him, there’s just one goal.

“They’re putting their lives on the line. Think about if we’re having a hurricane and they’re doing boat rescues and swift-water rescues and they lose their lives while they’re doing this,” he said, adding that the state should cover the death.

“Not that the state could write a check for them right now, but if the process and method were in place ahead of time, we automatically cover them. And it would come out of the state budget,” Nichols added. “Until now, we didn’t need it.”

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