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National Guard troops have been to the border before
Scripps Howard News Service


May 15, 2006

WASHINGTON - President Bush's imminent deployment of U.S. National Guard troops to the border with Mexico is far from the first time a commander-in-chief has sent a large contingent of citizen-soldiers there.

In fact, it is almost 90 years ago to the day that Guard troops were dispatched in the greatest number ever to the often-troubled region.

At that time, Mexico was embroiled in a civil war. Seeking to boost his bona fides at home as a warlord to be reckoned with, the legendary Pancho Villa staged a nighttime cross-border raid on the town of Columbus, N.M. Seventeen Americans died in that March 9, 1916, attack.




Outraged, President Woodrow Wilson ordered 10,000 Army soldiers to chase Villa and his bandits into northern Mexico. To back up the regulars, Wilson asked the governors of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to send National Guardsmen to help protect the border from other raids, according to Army National Guard's first official history, titled "I Am the Guard."

By May 11, 1916, more than 5,200 U.S. citizen-soldiers were headed for the border. As the crisis deepened, and Germany began to court Mexico as an ally, Wilson ordered a nationwide Guard call-up. In all, more than 158,600 Guard troops took up positions along the 2,000-mile demarcation line.

By most accounts, their border duty was decidedly dull. Based near Laredo, Texas, Florida's regiment spent its mornings on "cross-country hikes and patrols, and their afternoons in close-order drills," according to a history of the Florida Guard. Michigan's units had a similarly boring stay.

"Service on the border was uneventful, consisting mainly of guard duty, drill instructions, marches, etc.," according to a Michigan guard history.

Eventually, the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in April 1917 brought most of the Guard troops back from the border and, then, across the ocean to fight in World War I.

In more recent times, relatively large numbers of Guard and active-duty troops have also served along the 2,000-mile border:

- In 1990, more than 800 Guard volunteers from Texas to California were dispatched to the border to help in the war on drugs. They inspected cargo at international points of entry, conducted surveillance of known smuggling routes in mountainous or desert areas, and flew observation flights.

- In 1992, more than 1,000 Marines took over a large section of the border to block drug smugglers from Texas to Arizona. Supported by Army helicopters, Humvees and reconnaissance planes, the troops conducted long-range patrols along isolated stretches of the region.

- In 1997, as part of a continuing 100-troop deployment, a U.S. Marine in a unit conducting armed military anti-drug patrols fatally shot a teenage goat herder who had been mistaken for someone up to no good after the youth fired two shots from a rifle he carried to hunt small game or for protection. The next year, the Pentagon canceled all armed patrols.

Even so, hundreds of Army soldiers and Marines continued to back up the civilian U.S. Border Patrol, and more than 500 were sent to south Texas to build roads and helicopter landing pads.

- After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the military sent 1,600 Guardsmen to posts in 12 states that abut Mexico and Canada to fortify the borders. Unarmed and under the supervision of U.S. Treasury and Justice department civilians, the troops inspected vehicles, directed traffic, provided security and conducted surveillance.


Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)
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Scripps Howard News Service,

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