WILLCOX — On the same day that Gov. Doug Ducey announced Arizona National Guard troops deployed to the southeastern portion of the state to help law enforcement with issues on the border would be staying another year, the top member of the Guard visited her troops in Cochise County to let them know their mission is essential and appreciated.

Adjutant General for the Arizona National Guard Maj. Gen. Kerry L. Muehlenbeck spent time in Bisbee and Willcox on Wednesday talking to the soldiers who were sent to help the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office in April when Ducey declared an emergency on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Muehlenbeck said it’s important for her to let the soldiers know that they are not forgotten and that their mission is supported.

“It’s really my opportunity to come and to thank them,” Muehlenbeck said after addressing a handful of Guard members in the parking lot of the Sheriff’s Office in Willcox. “Often times they may not get the thank yous in the venues that I get them, so it’s nice to share the thank you with them.

“We appreciate what they’re doing. Sometimes they get separated from me at the headquarters and I don’t want them to to think out of sight is out of mind.”

At least 32 members of the Guard were sent to Cochise County April 30 by Ducey to help out in various non-law enforcement duties, with the majority assigned to the Sheriff’s Southeast Arizona Border Region Enforcement team in Benson. Other National Guard members were tasked with administrative duties in the Sheriff’s Willcox and Bisbee offices.

Monitoring cameras is a key function aimed at helping authorities hold back the number of illegal crossings into the area by undocumented migrants, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels has said.

On April 16, Ducey announced Arizona would take matters into its own hands regarding the onslaught of undocumented migrants pouring into the state. Ducey’s statement came after the Arizona Department of Public Safety spotted 20 undocumented migrants in Chandler that same day, but were rebuffed by both the Border Patrol and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when they asked for help. The migrants were released in Chandler.

The governor’s law enforcement and military liaison, Megan Fitzgerald, said Ducey had asked the federal government for support in deploying the National Guard — known as Title 32 — but the support never materialized. Ducey decided to declare an emergency along Arizona’s four-border counties and deployed the National Guard under State Active Duty.

Wednesday morning Ducey announced an extension of the National Guard’s mission for at least another year, citing the “escalating manmade crisis at the border.”

The governor said the extension was fueled by information from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that reported “a stunning 21-year record high number of illegal border crossings” in July as compared to June. According to statistics releases by U.S. Customs and Border Protection last week, the number of undocumented migrants encountered at the Southwest border of the U.S. during July was 212,672. That’s compared to 188,934 undocumented persons encountered in June.

The governor said money appropriated for the emergency mission will help support the more than 150 troops deployed to southeast Arizona in April.

“The border mission will continue for at least another year thanks to $25 million in funding from the FY 2022 budget passed by the Arizona State Legislature and signed by the Governor,” a press release sent by Ducey’s office says.

Ducey thanked Muehlenbeck for her leadership of the soldiers who have been deployed. The governor’s office listed the tasks the Guard troops are performing along the border in different law enforcement agencies, assisting with medical operations in detention centers, camera maintenance and monitoring, data analysis and logistics and administrative support to local law enforcement.

In a brief interview with the Herald/Review at the Sheriff’s Willcox office, Muehlenbeck explained the troops assisting in southeast Arizona could stay more or less than a year, depending on what’s needed.

“The governor signed the emergency declaration back in April,” Muehlenbeck said. “The emergency is continuing. When it started the original piece was an allotment of $200,000 that goes to all emergencies. Then they did a special session to allow another $2.5 million. But now we have funding and there’s an allotment of $25 million for the Southern Arizona Law Enforcement Mission.

“I think the 12-month (extension) is a good estimate. But depending on how we allocate resources, that 12 months could turn into 18 months, or it could be less. If they want bodies, then that would be less expensive than bodies and helicopters.”

The governor’s limit is 250 National Guard troops, Muehlenbeck said. There are about 160 throughout Southeast Arizona. An additional four troops will be sent to the Sheriff’s Office in Bisbee to help out at the county jail.

Muehlenbeck said if there is a need for more troops, “I’m sure that’s a conversation I can have with the governor.”

Meanwhile, one of the Guard members who met Muehlenbeck for the first time Wednesday in Willcox was 24-year-old Sgt. Jacqueline Schamahorn. A six-year veteran with the Army National Guard, Schamahorn has been helping out with clerical duties at the Sheriff’s Office.

Schamahorn said it meant a lot to her to have someone of Muehlenbeck’s stature address the troops in Willcox and Bisbee.

“It’s exciting and very nerve wracking to meet somebody of her stature and her rank to come down here,” Schamahorn said. “It was very nice and I enjoyed every second of it.”

For Muehlenbeck, meeting the soldiers in person is paramount to learning about their mission and how it can be improved from an “administrative standpoint.”

“I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Muehlenbeck said after she spoke with Schamahorn and others. “They’re bringing a diverse skill set to the field and back to their communities. Every time I talk to them they’re very proud of their work in the community. They are proud to serve their country, but they’re also proud to be in the community and to help out here.”

Muehlenbeck also thanked the many employers who support the National Guard members when they’re deployed on a mission.

“Throughout our history, at least my history with the National Guard, we have done what we’ve done on the backs of employers who are very supportive and we’re very grateful to them.”