Texas National Guard member's death renews focus on lack of death benefits

National Guard members carried a flag-draped stretcher up a boat ramp on Monday morning near Eagle Pass. State military personnel could also be seen saluting as the body of Guard Specialist Bishop Evans was carried from the Rio Grande. 

Evans drowned last week while trying to save two migrants. In a statement issued by the National Guard, Adjutant General Maj Gen Tom Suelzer said in part: "We are devastated by the loss of a member of our Guard family."

It’s believed Evans is the seventh Texas National Guard member to die while deployed as part of Operation Lone Star.

Officials described Evans' death as heroic, but those words do not include death benefits for his family. It's a problem State Rep John Cyrier (R) Lockhart tried to address.

"We're putting these members in danger. And so, you know, that's what I was thinking. You know, again, this is just another point of them putting their lives on the line. It may not be overseas, it may not be in a firefight. It's still right here in our own state and these are dangerous missions that they're put on. And I'm afraid Guardsman Evans, this is just another reminder of that," said Cyrier.

The 22-year-old Army Specialist is from Arlington. He joined the Texas National Guard in May 2019. He is listed as a Field Artilleryman and was assigned to a Regiment based in New Braunfels. He has also had deployments to Kuwait and Iraq. 

Despite all of that, family members are not eligible for federal death benefits. That’s because he died while deployed on Operation Lone Star, which is not a federal deployment, but one ordered by Governor Greg Abbott.

FOX 7 was told Service members’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI) still applies for guardsman on the border mission. 

Jason Featherston, retired Command Sargent Major for the Texas Guard, said guard members are eligible for up to the maximum amount of $400,000. That amount is if the service member elected the coverage, but Featherston said it is true that the $100,000 death gratuity is not available because Evans was on SAD (State deployment) and not on Active Duty.

In 2019, Cyrier filed legislation to address the insurance coverage gap.

"And I remember in 2019 when I was up in front of the Appropriations Committee on it, a lot of a lot of people just assumed that they were already getting, you know, especially the National Guardsmen, were getting federal benefits from this and we're a little surprised with it," said Cyrier.

State troopers, who are deployed as part of Operation Lone Star, are covered by the state. Cyrier’s bill in 2019 failed and so did a second attempt in 2021.

"I just believe it's just with everything else going on because of the pandemic, it just got overlooked again," said Cyrier.

At the state Capitol Wednesday, the first step in trying again may take place. A hearing about the guard's border deployment will take place.

"I've already spoke with Chairman Richard Raymond, Defense and Veterans Affairs Chairman and about this issue, and they're quite aware of it. And he also gave me his word that he'll be authoring and pushing it next session," Cyrier.

That push will be done without Rep. Cyrier. He didn’t run for re-election and will not be under the Capitol Dome next year.