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Mattis to Troops: Border Patrol Will Do the Work, Be Their 'Confidence Builder'

Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen answer questions from soldiers Nov. 14, 2018, at Base Camp Donna, Texas. (Master Sgt. Jacob Caldwell/DoD)

Defense Secretary James Mattis told troops deployed to the southern border today that their job is to act as a “confidence builder” for Border Patrol agents as about 100 migrants from the Central American caravan are expected to reach the California-Mexico border this weekend.

Mattis toured Donna Base Camp in Texas with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, where he acknowledged to troops that “there’s all sorts of stuff in the news, and that sort of thing” but “you just concentrate on what your company commander, your battalion commander tells you.”

“Because if you read all that stuff, you know, you’ll go nuts,” he said. “You know what your mission is here. You’ve had to deploy on short notice to a nontraditional location and do your jobs. So you focus on doing that.”

“We were asked by the secretary, due to the number of people coming this way, to back them up. What does that mean? It means that her people do all the work, but we’re standing behind them as a confidence builder.”

En route, Mattis told reporters that currently “about 5,900 troops are deployed to support the Border Patrol” and that might go up to around 7,000.

“In what we call the execute order that went out, all of the units are tasked with tracking all costs associated. They will compile those costs and send them up. Now, to the engineer battalion or to the helicopter company or squadron that deployed, we have not received those costs. So we can estimate costs all we want; I’d prefer to give you real costs. Right now, I can’t give that to you,” he said. “It’s the cost of deploying them, it’s the cost of transferring their equipment to the border, it’s fuel costs, it’s all those kinds of costs.  So I just don’t want to get into something I can’t give you what I believe confidently is accurate.”

Mattis said it’s “been interesting to see the feedback, I would say, from the captains, lieutenant colonels and senior NCOs.”

“One of them — the report came into me, they said, we were not anticipating this, we received the warning order, we got the execute order, we had to deploy to a non-traditional mission away from home station,” he said. “These are all the same things we would do if we were deploying anywhere in the world, and he said right now, he said we’re deployed, we’re living out of tents. He said this is actually very good training because they’re rehearsing everything that we do in a real — in a deployment elsewhere in the world.”

“So had I put myself in his shoes, I could have anticipated that but in fact, in terms of readiness, it’s actually, I believe so far improving our readiness for deployment, for making certain our procedures for mount-out are correct and we know how to get stuff on board aircraft for movement. So far that cost has not been borne out; it’s actually helping us.”

Mattis was asked what he’d say to military families who fear that this deployment will keep their loved ones away for the holidays.

“I’ve got the troops deployed from Syria and Iraq to the Pacific. They’re out in the Atlantic. You saw that we just finished one of the largest NATO exercises, and the troops have just — the ships have just pulled into our NATO ally, Portugal’s port of Lisbon. We are going to continue to have troops deployed, and this is just for our military. We’re a 365-day-a-year military. Rain or shine, light or dark, cold weather or hot weather — we have an all-weather force that’s on duty 24/7,” he replied.

“Drive around the Pentagon on Thanksgiving Day, and look at the number of cars in the parking lot of people who work right through the holidays. Some of you were with me when we were at Guantanamo Bay last Thanksgiving timeframe. Troops were down there,” Mattis added. “Kind of, all I can say to the American people: Welcome to your military. It’s on duty.”