By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune, and Davis Winkie, Military Times
“Texas National Guard member’s death on border prompts bill to provide survivor benefits” 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.
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Bishop Evans was ready for the next chapter of his life.
After a 2019 hurricane response mission for the Texas National Guard and a yearlong deployment to Kuwait, Evans thought he was done. The 22-year-old part-time artilleryman from Arlington registered for classes at Tarrant County College and was excited to begin the long road toward becoming an anaesthesiologist.
Then, Evans was called up for border duty. He drove to San Marcos to tell his superiors he had not volunteered for the mission and did not want to be deployed again. But he returned home with a written notice requiring him to deploy to the border within hours, like thousands of other Texas Guard troops involuntarily mobilized for Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star.
“He was not happy about it,” his grandmother Jo Ann Johnson, who raised him, said in an interview with The Texas Tribune and the Military Times. “He had a lot of concerns. And he really thought he was through and he didn’t have to go back.”
He reported to the border and returned in a flag-draped casket. In April, he drowned after jumping into the Rio Grande to save two migrants being swept away by the current. They survived.
If Evans had been a trooper for the Department of Public Safety or a game warden for the Parks and Wildlife Department, his family would have received a $500,000 lump-sum payment to ease the burden of his passing. If he’d been on federal deployment, they would have gotten $100,000. If he’d been a guard member who died while on state active duty for California or Pennsylvania or Ohio, his family could have expected a payment ranging from $10,000 to $175,000.
But because he was a Texas National Guard member deployed on Operation Lone Star, Evans’ family didn’t get a dime from the state.
Now, state lawmakers want to change that through a bill named after Evans, who was promoted to sergeant posthumously.
The Bishop Evans Act filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, and Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would allow service members on state active duty to have the same access to the state’s death benefits as law enforcement officers who die on the job. For those who leave behind spouses or minor children, the benefits include eligibility for state health insurance and monthly payments of up to $800.
“Sergeant Bishop Evans served our nation to the greatest extent,” Patterson said in a statement. “We should honor him by ensuring all Guardsmen serving on State Active Duty status are granted the benefits they’ve earned.”
Huffman said she hoped naming the bill after Evans would memorialize not only his “service and sacrifice, but … a meaningful change in policy for all guardsmen moving forward.”
The Texas Military Department did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.
When lawmakers return to Austin in January, they will have their first opportunity to address the gaps in coverage for troops exposed by Operation Lone Star. (The Legislature meets only once every two years unless the governor declares a special session to tackle emergency items.) If approved, the death benefit legislation — which failed in the past two legislative sessions — could be one of the most significant changes to come out of a mission of unprecedented length and scope.
Since Abbott began the deployment of thousands of guard members to the border in March 2021, service members have complained about poor living conditions, inadequate training and equipment, problems getting paid and a lack of a sense of mission. In Evans’ case, a joint Tribune and Military Times investigation revealed that administrative delays in purchasing orders kept hundreds of requested water-rescue ropes and ring buoys from making it to the border.
In addition to Evans’ drowning, at least nine service members tied to the mission have died. Five of the deaths were suspected suicides, two were accidental shootings, one was a blood clot during a record heat wave and one was an off-duty motorcycle accident.
Suicide deaths and off-duty accidents typically don’t qualify for state first-responder death benefits, but Evans, the soldier who suffered a blood clot and the soldier killed in an on-duty accidental shooting near Brackettville in February may have died under qualifying circumstances had TMD personnel been covered. State law says the benefit for law enforcement officers, firefighters and some other public employees covers personal injuries suffered “in the line-of-duty” and illnesses “caused by line-of-duty work under hazardous conditions.”
Extending the death benefit to troops on state active duty would help grieving families by easing the load of things they have to take care of during difficult times, Johnson said. Evans’ family was able to cover his funeral costs through life insurance policies and savings, she said. But some young troops opt out of life coverage, and not all families have savings.
“It will help you not have to worry about how you’re going to bury your child,” Johnson said. “All of this falls back on the family … and for some families it can be devastating.”
Previous efforts to extend the death benefits have failed in recent years.
State Rep. John Cyrier, R-Lockhart, filed bills to give National Guard troops on state active duty death benefits the last two legislative sessions. The 2019 bill was passed in the House but died before getting a committee hearing in the Senate. The 2021 bill never got a hearing in either chamber.
This year, however, military benefits will be under a microscope given Evans’ recent death and the ongoing border mission, in which approximately 5,000 troops are still deployed. And lawmakers and military officials are already lending their support to the measure.
Retired Maj. Gen. Charles Rodriguez, who led the Texas Military Department from 2005-09, said it is important to give troops on state active duty at least the same benefits that law enforcement officers receive on Operation Lone Star for performing the same duties.
“Let’s get the soldiers on state status up to the same benefits,” he said.
The former top noncommissioned officer for the Texas Army National Guard, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Jason Featherston, agreed.
“It’s about time the Texas Legislature get with the program and treat guardsmen the way [they] should have been treated all along,” said Featherston, who became a vocal critic of the mission after retiring in November 2021.
“Earlier this year, the devastating death of Spc. Bishop Evans shined a light on gaps in crucial coverage for our guardsmen, and I’m proud to support this legislation honoring our tireless Texas military forces who deserve benefits that better reflect their great service,” Phelan said in a statement.
In April, a spokesperson for Patrick told the San Antonio Express-News that he supported a death benefit for guard members and “hopes both chambers can find an agreement during the upcoming legislative session.”
Abbott’s office declined multiple requests for comment.
But Patterson and Huffman’s bill goes beyond the legislation proposed in recent years. On top of extending death benefits, the bill also proposes expanding worker’s compensation to cover post-traumatic stress disorder developed during state active duty and expediting workplace injury claims filed by troops.
Those additional provisions could increase the bill’s price tag, particularly because Operation Lone Star, unlike most state active-duty missions, has lasted for nearly two years.
State active-duty stints are intended to be short-term responses to emergencies, like natural disasters or civil disturbances. Typically, long-term missions are federally funded and offer a slew of benefits traditionally associated with military service: free health insurance for service members’ families, G.I. Bill education benefits, and Veterans Affairs disability and health care coverage for any injuries or health conditions incurred. But Abbott’s border mission has already lasted for 21 months — without those benefits for the troops who are deployed.
At one point, Abbott boasted that he had deployed 10,000 troops for the mission in an effort to deter migrants from crossing into the state from Mexico. (In reality, only about 6,500 were ever on the border, with thousands of others supporting the mission from elsewhere.)
Still, covering PTSD and workplace injuries for that number of troops could be costly, and that could make the bill more challenging to push through the Legislature, Rodriguez said.
“Everything has to do with the bill payer. The comptroller will always ask, ‘OK, well, this legislation is going to cost how much?’” Rodriguez said. “At the end of the day, when I would deal with state legislators, they would say, ‘That’s where we’re stuck.’”
Despite the cost, Texas lags behind its peer states when it comes to benefits offered for troops who die while on state duty. Among the five states with the largest number of National Guard troops, only Texas and New York offer no death benefits. But New York reimburses premiums for military group life insurance up to $400,000. Pennsylvania awards the families of guard members who die while on state active duty more than $175,000. California pays out $10,000, and Ohio pays $100,000.
Patterson and Huffman declined to comment beyond their news release announcing their filing of the bill. But Huffman is the leader of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee and will have significant control over how the Legislature appropriates money.
State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a Laredo Democrat who heads the House Committee on Defense and Veterans’ Affairs, has filed a similar bill that deals only with extending death benefits to guard members on state active duty.
“It’s not complicated. It’s the right thing to do, and I expect we will do it,” he said, adding that he expects the legislation to have bipartisan support.
Extending death benefits and worker’s compensation coverage are not the only places where military advocates will be asking for more money.
In an October hearing to the Legislative Budget Board, Maj. Gen. Thomas M. Suelzer, who took over as the Texas Military Department’s top leader in March after its previous leader was criticized for her handling of the mission, said his top two priorities were tuition assistance increases and mental health intervention initiatives for guard members. Troops have complained about the lack of both as they are sent on long deployments to the border that sometimes interfere with their jobs, family lives and education. (The Texas National Guard is primarily made up of part-time service members.)
In 2021, lawmakers slashed the military department’s two-year budget for tuition assistance from $3 million to $1.4 million at the request of the state’s top leaders, who were asking departments to trim budgets because of concerns about the pandemic. Later that year, lawmakers authorized $3 billion in state spending for Operation Lone Star, and that number has grown to $4 billion since.
The cuts to the tuition assistance program meant fewer soldiers could apply for and receive tuition assistance, one of the National Guard’s most important recruiting tools. TMD officials have repeatedly stressed to lawmakers the need to restore that funding.
“It’s important to show our personnel that we care about educating them and providing those benefits that really fill a gap in state college tuition that can’t be filled by the federal government,” Suelzer told a Senate committee in April.
This year, officials are asking the Legislature for $15 million for the tuition assistance program — an increase in funding even over the recent cuts — that would go toward providing service members up to $10,000 in annual tuition assistance.
The department has also asked for $1.7 million in state funding for mental health intervention initiatives, which department leaders have stressed after the suspected suicides on the mission.
That funding would pay for the addition of eight licensed clinical social workers, four of whom would support state active-duty missions like Operation Lone Star. That money would also pay for three additional counselors and for increasing pay for existing employees in the mental health program, who are often offered higher-paying jobs elsewhere.
Back in Arlington, Johnson said she wants Evans to be remembered for his bravery, loyalty, selflessness and love for people.
Her grandson was a “caring, loving person” who made an impact on everyone he met and loved being in the military, she said. He came from a military family and joined the JROTC drill team at Mansfield High School before signing up for the Texas Army National Guard in 2019, serving in Kuwait and Iraq.
Johnson said that after Evans’ death, her family received condolences from state officials and commanders in the Texas National Guard. Letters of support and American flags rolled in from the public to honor Evans’ life — but no financial support.
She said she is supportive of Patterson and Huffman’s bill because it will help families in trying times.
“It changes your life when you lose someone,” she said. “No matter what the financial situation is of that family that’s left behind, this death benefit will help, it will definitely help.”
Her family met with Patterson’s office and agreed to name the bill after her grandson. But Johnson still has questions about how the state is improving conditions for troops and would like to be more involved. She said she often prays with parents of some of the troops who had been in JROTC with Evans and are still at the border.
Meanwhile, Johnson said her family is still waiting for answers about Evans’ death.
“I’m still working to get an official report of what happened,” she said.
With thousands of troops still at the border, Johnson said she also wants to know if conditions have improved for service members on the mission.
“I would like to find out what’s going on,” she said. “Has there been anything that would make the soldiers safer? What about those flotation devices? What about the equipment that they need? What about better living quarters? I would like to really follow up to see, was his death … is there anything coming out of it? Have we learned anything?”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/12/16/texas-national-guard-death-benefits-bishop-evans/.
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