By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune, and Davis Winkie, Military Times
“Family of dead National Guardsman urges Legislature to make death benefits bill named for him retroactive” 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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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.
The death of Bishop Evans, the Texas National Guard member who died last year while serving on Gov. Greg Abbott’s border mission, inspired legislation to ensure future guard members who die in the line of duty are guaranteed $500,000 in death benefits for their survivors.
But if the bill — named the “Bishop Evans Act” — passes, Evans’ own family won’t qualify. Now, Evans’ grandmother and other military advocates are asking lawmakers to make the bill retroactive so they could access the death benefits provided in the legislation.
“Financially, as far as me and my husband, we are seniors,” said Jo Ann Johnson, Evans’ grandmother, who raised him. “This definitely will help the family with some of the things [Bishop] wanted to do for me.”
Evans, 22, died last April while trying to save two migrants from drowning in the Rio Grande while he was on deployment for Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s signature immigration effort to try to curb the number of migrants crossing from Mexico into Texas. Evans was promoted posthumously to sergeant and awarded the Lone Star Medal of Valor at his funeral. He had also received the Meritorious Service Medal and two Army Achievement Medals.
Johnson said Evans, who lived with them, had purchased a private life insurance policy, which helped cover the cost of his funeral. But she said his family still had to cover other debts left behind in his name, and now they can no longer count on money he would send them to help pay the house bills.
“Bills come due, and they don’t stop just because someone stops breathing,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s family has been vocal about improving the conditions of the more than 4,000 service members who remain deployed on Operation Lone Star. She said providing that death benefit would ease the burden of families already dealing with the loss of a loved one.
Hunter Schuler, a soldier who led a unionizing effort among the guard members, said the Texas State Employees Union also wants a retroactive bill.
“I think I can safely speak for all soldiers when I say that we hope SGT Evans’ family receives all the help they possibly can,” Schuler said in a written statement. “If there is some legal technicality standing in the way of getting them the help they need, I would happily contribute and fundraise on their behalf and I know many other soldiers would do the same.”
Schuler said that while Evans’ death has gotten the most attention, other soldiers have also died before him on the mission and have died since.
“The SGT Evans Memorial Bill is one of those laws that you hope you’ll never need to use,” he wrote. “However, the reality of the dangers that service members on the border mission face in the line of duty means that the state of Texas needs to step up and take care of a service members’ family when the unthinkable happens.”
Mitch Fuller, director of government and public affairs for Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars, said his organization also supports making the bill retroactive.
“If it’s possible to do it, we would support it,” he said.
While the state guarantees law enforcement officers, like Department of Public Safety troopers, a $500,000 death benefit for their families if they die on duty, National Guard troops who stand shoulder to shoulder with those DPS officers on Operation Lone Star don’t have the same benefit. National Guard troops on federal deployment who die on the job receive a six-figure lump-sum death benefit, but Operation Lone Star is a state deployment, and Texas does not currently offer similar financial support.
Lawmakers are trying to address that disparity during this year’s legislative session, which ends on Memorial Day. If lawmakers do not approve a law change before then, they could have to wait two more years before the Legislature reconvenes.
Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, and Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican who leads the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, have filed bills to guarantee the $500,000 death benefit to troops who are deployed to action by the state.
Patterson declined comment. Huffman did not respond to a request for comment.
The legislation has the support of top leaders such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan, who has made it one of his legislative priorities.
Making the legislation retroactive could potentially impact the family of another soldier assigned to Operation Lone Star, Spc. DaJuan Townes, who died in an accidental shooting on Feb. 7, 2022 at Fort Clark Springs near Brackettville.
Townes, a 19-year-old horizontal construction engineer from Spring, was sitting in a fellow soldier’s car amid a swim training event. He was handing a personally owned handgun to a soldier sitting behind him in the vehicle when it fired a round through the seat and into his back, according to documents obtained by Military Times.
But the Texas Military Department’s statement identifying Townes described the shooting as “non-mission related,” leaving it unclear whether his death would be eligible for the death benefit. Efforts to reach members of Townes’ family were unsuccessful.
Other deaths associated with the mission were either suspected suicides or occurred outside of duty hours. Those circumstances likely wouldn’t qualify for death benefits under the legislation as currently written.
Patterson’s legislation received committee approval last month and is on its way to the House Calendars Committee, one step away from being considered by the entire Texas House.
Texas military leaders have asked the Legislature for years without success to provide the state death benefit.
But this year, the bill has garnered much more attention, largely due to Evans’ death.
An investigation by The Texas Tribune and Military Times revealed that Evans did not have flotation devices or water rescue equipment when he jumped into the river. The potentially fatal lack of key equipment added to the myriad of issues troops have faced on Operation Lone Star, including pay problems, poor living conditions and a rash of suspected suicides tied to the mission.
Most National Guard troops serve part time and have civilian jobs. They’re usually called to help in emergency situations, such as hurricanes, tornadoes or crowd control, and historically have been used for short-term deployments that last weeks at the most. Long-term missions usually have months of notice and come with federal benefits, such as no-cost health care and education funding.
But Abbott involuntarily activated thousands of soldiers to the border for deployments of up to a year at a time, some of them with only 72-hour notice. At one point, Abbott said there were 10,000 troops deployed to the border. (In reality, there were roughly 6,500 there, with others scattered throughout the state for logistical help.)
By the end of his time on the mission, Evans no longer wanted to be deployed. He was ready to go home and start his studies at Tarrant County College.
But his grandmother said he loved being part of JROTC at Mansfield High School, where the annual drill meet has been renamed in Evans’ honor. Evans later joined the Texas Army National Guard, served in Kuwait and Iraq, and was proud to be part of the military.
Johnson said the family would like to create a scholarship fund in Evans’ name for the Mansfield JROTC program. Having access to death benefits would help them with that goal.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/04/04/bishop-evans-legislature-death-benefits/.
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