It was hot, sandy and, according to the then-U.S. president, important to the security of the United States.
No, it wasn’t a deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. In 2006 and 2007, the Utah National Guard deployed to Arizona to build a wall along the Mexican border. Sterling Wilkey was one of the soldiers who went. The deployment impacted his views on immigration today.
“I’m sure there are good people who are trying to better themselves coming across,” Wilkey said in a recent interview.
Even so, Wilkey agrees with President Donald Trump. Wilkey wants a wall across the entire Mexican border.
“It’s not going to stop [illegal immigration] a hundred percent,” Wilkey said, “but it’s going to slow it down immensely.”
Seth McCoy was a private in the Utah Army National Guard in 2006. He has a low opinion of his deployment to San Luis, Ariz., then and views a total border wall as a waste of money now.
“I don’t foresee,” the 42-year-old McCoy said recently, “any kind of construction technology that isn’t defeated by human ingenuity backed by desperation.”
The Utah National Guard’s history with the southern border goes back to 1916 and the Mexican Revolution. Eight hundred Utah soldiers, including cavalry and field artillery, were sent to Nogales, Ariz. They guarded against raiders and arms smugglers, and freed regular Army troops to search for Pancho Villa.
Subsequent deployments to the border have been more peaceful. For border wall construction, the Utah National Guard’s 1457th Engineer Battalion, headquartered in American Fork, and its 116th Engineer Company have gotten the call.
Wilkey, who was in the 116th and retired in 2016 as a sergeant, says he first was sent to the Mexican border in 1997. He went to improve roads for the U.S. border patrol agents near San Diego and heard stories of the California soldiers giving water and food to distressed migrants.
“Who knows if they were criminal or not,” Wilkey said, “but you’ve got to be human.”
In May 2006, President George W. Bush announced he was sending troops to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The next month, 55 Utah National Guard soldiers were tasked for two weeks to build a wall along the open desert next to San Luis. Temperatures topped 100 degrees.
Tooele resident Dee Byergo was in the Utah National Guard for 23 years before retiring as a staff sergeant. He also deployed to the Mexican border along California during the Clinton administration and then to Arizona in 2006 and 2007. He is proud of those deployments.
Byergo, who operated a crane that inserted the wall slats in 2006, said building those walls near populated areas with heavy foot traffic made strategic sense because they funneled people to authorized border crossings. Yet Byergo opposes the Trump plan to erect a wall across the entire southern border.
Some of his reasons are similar to those shared by many Americans — the price tag, the fact that illegal crossings have declined in recent years and questions about whether a wall is the most effective way to address security threats.
He also recalls how Trump long said he wanted a tall, concrete wall. Byergo thinks about that like a soldier.
‘Tactically,” he said, “that puts Border Patrol at a complete disadvantage as far as being able to see what’s happening on the other side.”
McCoy ran power drills, poured concrete and applied nonstick agents to framing boards while in San Luis in 2006. He said it was good training for him but didn’t do much good for the country.
“What we were doing was pointless,” McCoy said. “We did about 300 yards of wall during that two weeks, and it was 300 yards of isolated wall in either direction. For at least a mile in either direction there was no wall. It was a good way to waste taxpayer money.”
Work on the border wall continued after the Utah National Guard left San Luis. Today, it extends about 60 miles east to the Cabeza Prieta Mountains. McCoy received an honorable discharge from the Utah National Guard in 2013 and now lives in Nebraska.
Utah soldiers returned to Arizona in 2007, this time near the town of Douglas. Wilkey was on that deployment, too. He said the troops received warnings to be on alert for migrant crossings that they did not get the year earlier.
The soldiers found some satchels and backpacks apparently left behind by migrants who were trying to lighten their loads in the desert.
“We had a direct phone number to the Border Patrol to come pick [the migrants’ belongings] up,” Wilkey said.
Wilkey grew up in Spanish Fork and now lives out of state. One of his aunts immigrated from El Salvador in the 1950s. Wilkey supports legal immigration, he said.
He recently heard someone say the United States should not only build a complete border wall, but also post armed guards like existed at the Berlin Wall.
“Something like that,” Wilkey said, “I would have a problem with.”