By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune, and Davis Winkie, Military Times
“Gov. Greg Abbott replaces Texas military leader who has overseen heavily criticized border mission” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
This article is co-published and co-reported with Military Times, an independent news organization reporting on issues important to the U.S. military. Sign up for its daily Early Bird Brief newsletter here.
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Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday he has replaced Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris as leader of the Texas Military Department after months of criticism that her handling of his highly touted border mission had led to deplorable living conditions for troops.
In a news release, Abbott said Norris’ term expired in February and Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Suelzer, who formerly oversaw the Texas Air Guard, was the military department’s new leader as of Monday.
Norris began her three-year tenure at the helm of the department in 2019 but came under heavy criticism in recent months after a massive ramp-up of Operation Lone Star last fall led to pay issues, poor living conditions and a lack of appropriate gear for troops on the mission.
An investigation co-published by The Texas Tribune and Military Times found that many of the issues plaguing the mission were not only byproducts of the mission’s hasty expansion, but also similar to problems faced during the department’s last major state deployment, during Hurricane Harvey.
Norris and the department were also criticized after several service members tied to the operation died by suicide.
One of the Republican opponents Abbott beat in this month’s gubernatorial primary, Allen West, criticized Norris’ handling of the mission and called for her resignation in January. In February, a leaked morale survey revealed major dissatisfaction among troops, with more than half of the service members surveyed expressing skepticism or frustration with the mission.
Abbott did not acknowledge criticism of Norris in his statement, instead thanking her for her work with the department. Her predecessor as adjutant general of the department served for nearly seven years.
“General Norris faithfully served the Texas Military Department with dignity, as Adjutant General beginning in January 2019, as Assistant Adjutant General in 2016, and over her decades of service,” Abbott said in a statement. “I thank General Norris for her exceptional service to the State of Texas and am honored to appoint her successor, Major General Thomas Suelzer, as the Adjutant General of Texas. General Suelzer brings a wealth of military experience to this new role, and I am confident that he will uphold the integrity of the Texas Military Department and exemplify servant leadership throughout every aspect of this position.”
Others were quick to point out Norris’ recent struggles.
“I’ll believe there is positive change when I see it,” tweeted U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso and has been critical of Operation Lone Star. “Maj. Gen. Suelzer, please let me be the first to say: Send our Guard members home.”
Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat challenging Abbott in the November election, put the blame for the mission’s recent controversies squarely at the incumbent governor’s feet.
“You can switch Generals, but we all know where the buck stops. Greg Abbott took 10,000 Guard members from their families, jobs, and communities,” O’Rourke said in a statement. “He has treated them with incredible disrespect as he has delayed their pay, cut their tuition benefits in half, and used them as political pawns in his re-election campaign. It’s time to bring them back home.”
Another vocal critic of Norris’ leadership has been retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, who was the Texas Army National Guard’s top enlisted soldier from May 2020 until he retired shortly before the border mission’s troop surge.
“TMD has hit rock bottom under the leadership of MG Tracy Norris,” he said in a text message. “[The organization] will need to start a rebuilding mode and will need to focus [on] soldier priorities and retention … let’s hope it’s not too late or take years to undo the damage [she] has caused.”
Spc. Hunter Schuler, a soldier on the border mission who represents fellow troops as a coordinator for the Texas State Employees Union’s Military Council, welcomed the change in leadership as well.
“When faced with logistical failures, suicides, and abhorrent conditions, MG Norris and her executive staff were slow to make corrections, deflected from their mistakes, repeatedly misled service members, and lied to the public,” Schuler said in a text message. “We are optimistic about MG Suelzer and hope that he will make other overdue leadership changes and advocate for his service members’ best interests – including releasing them from this involuntary political stunt on the border.”
A unionization effort was largely spurred by what service members saw as failures by leadership during Operation Lone Star.
Before Monday’s appointment, Suelzer served as the deputy adjutant general-air for the Texas National Guard at Camp Mabry. In that role, he was the main adviser to Norris on Air National Guard issues and was responsible for policies, plans and programs that affected three wings and more than 3,200 Air National Guard service members.
Suelzer joined the Texas National Guard in 2007 and served as the deputy director for domestic operations. He has served on two border missions and led the military’s COVID-19 response in Texas.
Suelzer graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He served in the active duty Air Force and the Air Force Reserve before transferring to Texas.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/03/14/texas-greg-abbott-border-military-thomas-suelzer/.
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