In the middle of a political minefield, the army prepares itself on the border of a migrating caravan

With a couple of bulldozers muttering through muddy terrain for him, Staff Sgt. Kevin Barr noticed when the sober start of an army camp on the army at the southern border slowly sat Saturday.

After a night of rain and temperatures falling below 50 degrees, the open field in which they lived – land supplied by American customs and border protection – turned into a razor-sharp, messy mess with the consistency of peanut butter.

Soldiers had sharp cardboard thread strung around the perimeter of the base, dozens of olive-green tents piled up and last week dozens of humvees and trucks for heavy trucks lined up, but there was not much prepared to prepare for mud in the typically dusty South Texas. . .

"If we can get some gravel, we may be able to contaminate some of the areas and try to find a way here," Barr said. "Because this clay is rather thick."

The rough weather was the last surprise for soldiers in a mission whose wheels were moving in the middle of President Trump's election season warnings that an "invasion" of migrants – many of them actually women and children – was heading north towards the United States.

The deployment was scheduled by critics as a politically motivated stunt to gather Trump's base for the midterm elections, even when Defense Minister Jim Mattis said late last month that "we do not do political stunts" in the military. Less than a week later, the Pentagon deprived the operation of his name – Faithful Patriot – in the midst of complaints that it was openly political. Images of soldiers stretching concertina wire at the border just before the election day had just surfaced.

A soldier stands in front of the flag during a training session at the base camp in Donna. (Calla Kessler / The Washington Post)

The attention of the public has shifted from the mission in recent days because the president has focused on other matters. But the army's military effort from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, has continued despite questions about its necessity.

The caravan is still hundreds of kilometers from the border, and this week instead goes to Tijuana, about 1500 miles to the west. The mission is expected to last until December 15, keep soldiers away from families through Thanksgiving and close to Christmas.

Approximately 5,600 service companies were dispatched from Friday, according to the Pentagon. Approximately 2,800 are in Texas, including more than 1,000 in Task Force Griffin, an army unit that temporarily has its roots in the Rio Grande Valley and has a corps of leaders from the 89th Military Police Brigade of Fort Hood, Tex.

Colonel Richard Ball, the Task Force commander, in a press conference on Friday at a border in Hidalgo, Texas, sought to emphasize that the US military will not have a law enforcement role in the operation. This is considered a bottleneck due to the Posse Comitatus Act, which limits active-duty troops in most cases to participate in such activities. US troops are expected to have "very little to occasional contact" with migrants, he said, and will adopt the indications of CBP officials if this occurs.

In the base camp in Donna soldiers are advised to talk about politics, a common refrain in every operation. But they are also careful in answering questions about how many soldiers live there, how long they will stay or what they will do. At least two soldiers Saturday disagreed with the question of whether their work should even be considered a bet, as they are still in the United States. News reports from the Pentagon continue to say that service workers are deployed for border support.

Captain Lauren Blanton, a naval officer stationed at Fort Knox, Ky., Said she arrived with three other soldiers in Donna more than a week ago and found an open field. As the mayor of the camp & # 39; Since then she has supervised the installation of a trailer with 16 shower cabins, tents for a facility that meets the daily medical needs and a single massive tent that is usually used as a cafeteria for troops. However, given the number of soldiers brought by Donna, the army command instead changed the big tent – the only one with heat in the camp – into living quarters for more soldiers.

On Saturday there were more than 100 soldiers who relaxed from the inside, some reading, others played video games on their phones, others threw around a football and one attempt to solve a Rubik & # 39; s Cube. Hundreds of cots were at least 18 scattered over a larger space than an ice hockey rink.

Capt. Tim Smith, commander of the 977th Military Police Company of Fort Riley, Kan., Said that he and his soldiers arrived on Donna on Friday on buses from the joint base San Antonio-Lackland, more than 240 miles away. The unit had a few days of training there, learned basic phrases in Spanish and used Google Translate, he said.

"Potentially we are going somewhere else in the future, but at the moment we do not know," he said.

One of Smith's soldiers, Sgt. 1st Class Steven Howd said he expected the company to formulate a training plan as soon as they got their assignment.

"I actually expected conditions to be even stricter than this," he said, sitting on a cradle. "I really expected that I would get even closer to the border, and providing every strength protection was necessary for our engineers to do their job, but without accommodation at all fun."

Outside in the cold, Sgt. Dacmen Ma from the 1st Cavalry Division in Fort Hood saw the bulldozers working their magic in the mud. When they pushed enough dirt into the verges, Ma & # 39; s team of soldiers planned to use a huge fuel bladder for trucks, generators and other equipment.

Ma, who grew up in Houston, returned from a deployment to Iraq last year, he said. He never expected him to get another assignment in the field in a few hours from home.

"Most of the time," he said, "I'd think I'd be overseas somewhere."