The Border Patrol chaplaincy program emerged in the late 1990s after the agency experienced an unprecedented number of line-of-duty deaths. It remains a critical service for an agency that has the highest rate of suicide in law enforcement
Justine Olsommer was 27 when she left her native Pennsylvania for the Rio Grande Valley to join the Border Patrol.
Her father’s death from an unexpected heart attack was seven years behind her; relocating put the event far away. But something about Olsommer’s new life as a Border Patrol agent lifted the grief back to the surface.
She sat alone in a Border Patrol pickup truck, her blonde hair pulled back into a tight bun, her long frame folded around a steering wheel, listening to the chatter on a crackling patrol scanner, which referred to “bodies” (Border Patrol lingo for people, whether dead or alive). Her eyes trained on the South Texas ranch land, she was plagued by thoughts of her father’s fate: “Why him? He was such a great person. Why, God, did you have to take my dad at such a young age?” she recalls thinking. “I felt he didn’t deserve it and it was difficult for me to handle that and still have faith.”
What was it about the job that tore open that old wound? Maybe it was the young families, fathers gripping their daughters’ hands tight as they emerged from the grapefruit groves. Maybe it was the isolation, or maybe the sense of danger inherent in the work. “You spend a lot of time out there by yourself, you know, with your back-up maybe 45 minutes away from you,” said Olsommer. “So if something happens it’s just you and God out there.”
Customs and Border Protection has the highest rate of employee suicide of any law enforcement agency, according to data obtained by Quartz from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. When I visited the Rio Grande Valley for this story in late June, the agency had seen three agents die by suicide in recent weeks — two locally and one in North Dakota.
Amid a surge in migration on pace to be the highest in two decades, I went to Texas to better understand the role of Border Patrol chaplains. What I discovered was a little-known ministry combating an entirely different, and often overlooked, crisis at the U.S. border: the emotional and spiritual well-being of those who protect it.
Whatever it was that rendered Olsommer’s pain anew, she took her emotional distress and the memories of her father with her to all of her shifts, including Operation Santa. An annual event, Border Patrol agents pool their money to buy gifts for the children who have to spend Christmas in the local hospital. Then they deliver the presents, along with some smiles and good cheer.
While there, Olsommer noticed Robert Hess — a Border Patrol agent who doubles as the Rio Grande Valley Sector chaplain. Hess, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stood out as particularly warm, passionate and energetic. Not only did he have the biggest smile and a hearty laugh that erupted and spread to every corner of the room, everyone seemed to know him.
“I noticed that there were long-term patients that would hug him and say, ‘Hey, Robert, how’s it going?’ and I said, ‘How do they know you so well?’ And he said, ‘You know, I actually had to spend some time here with my son.’”
Caught off guard, Hess shared something few people in the agency know, save for those who’d been around when it happened: his 5-year-old son, Elliot, had died in this very hospital, in 2006.
Elliot had been born in 2000 with brain damage after a 36-hour labor that included a loss of oxygen. He couldn’t eat on his own and had a feeding tube. Doctors didn’t expect him to make it as long as he did, Hess said. “His life was a miracle.” But he hung on for five years because “he was a stubborn little boy,” said Hess.
In the decade that followed Elliot’s death, Hess and his wife had three more children — all boys — only for Hess’ wife to leave him in 2015, taking the boys with her to Corpus Christi, while their teenage daughter stayed with Hess.
While losing Elliot had been devastating, Hess was prepared for the death. But his wife’s request for a divorce, left Hess “blindsided.”
Suddenly, the home he’d built to amplify noise was empty. The silence was profound; to get out of his own head a bit, Hess started volunteering at the hospital where Elliot had died. “All’s I do there is help the kiddos,” Hess said. The service provided a much-needed outlet for Hess, who is naturally jovial — so much so that, early on in his two decade career as a Border Patrol agent, a supervisor reprimanded him for smiling too much.
“Agents aren’t allowed to be happy, they aren’t allowed to show too much emotion,” said Hess.
As Hess shared with a guarded Olsommer, her walls came tumbling down. She confided in Hess about her father’s sudden death, how she’d been struggling with her grief, how it had shaken the foundations of her faith.
Usually, when Hess has his chaplain hat on, he doesn’t talk about himself. But, in Olsommer’s case, it was exactly what she needed to open up. Hess’s vulnerability, she said, enabled the two to start building a relationship.
And relationships — with God and with each other — are at the core of the chaplaincy program.
There are currently 164 chaplains in the Border Patrol; three of those chaplains are civilian employees. Because the role is taxing, the number of chaplains is constantly in flux, according to the assistant chief of the U.S. Border Patrol’s chaplaincy program, Spencer Hatch. “We fight burnout with the chaplains just as much as we do with agents themselves,” he said.
Until recently, all chaplains had to serve at least three years as agents or employees before applying to the chaplaincy program. But, because the border patrol desperately needs more chaplains — those 164 chaplains serve over 24,000 agents — the requirement has been reduced to one year.
“The most important part is being able to connect” with other agents, Hatch explained. Connecting, after all, can save lives: An agent who is suicidal is unlikely to reach out to a chaplain he’s never spoken to before. He might, however, call one he already has a relationship with.
If accepted to the chaplaincy program, agents and other employees go through a two-week training program and return to their regular duties; they must get the endorsement of their ecclesiastical leader.
While chaplains come from a variety of religious backgrounds, a disproportionately large number — around one-third — are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including Hess. Hess speculated that it’s a result of deep-rooted aspects of that faith’s volunteer and lay clergy culture. He tells a story to illustrate: In 1999, when he initially joined the Border Patrol and went to training in Glynco, Georgia, he attended the local Latter-day Saint church on Sunday. “That very first Sunday, I went to church and I already had an assignment,” he said. “I was teaching primary kids that Sunday.”
“You’re expected to help out,” he concluded.
The chaplaincy program, an agent tells me, is like Customs and Border Protection itself: underfunded. While it was an act of Congress that created the Border Patrol in 1924, the chaplaincy program was a grassroots effort by the agents themselves. After the agency experienced an unprecedented number of line-of-duty deaths in 1998, a few spiritually-minded agents began to organize. The chaplaincy program began with six agents in 1999; among the earliest chaplains was a border patrol agent who also happened to be a rabbi. In 2003, the newly formed training academy graduated its first class of 17 border patrol chaplains.
Embedded in the ranks, Border Patrol chaplains can be spotted only by the small metal and enamel pin they wear: the word “chaplain” radiates light into open hands waiting below.
A volunteer position with no additional pay, the chaplains’ work is first and foremost a “ministry of presence,” Hess and others say, accomplished by being in the trenches with other agents.
The demands on time, body and spirit put agents and their families under unique stress; it’s also demoralizing for agents to see themselves depicted as brutes, and to have their jobs politicized, particularly now, in the wake of the movement to defund police work. Hess speculates that the bad rap is one of the things that encourages border patrol agents to grow a thick skin — ironically contributing, on some level, to the “desensitization,” he said, that comes along with the job.
Every Border Patrol agent I spoke with — many of whom were first-generation Americans, a couple who were, themselves, immigrants — said that they don’t have an issue with immigration. They just want migrants to come in legally, “through the front door,” as they or their parents had.
Most also felt that, in some cases, by apprehending migrants, they were saving their lives. While at the Sarita checkpoint, one agent pointed out that sometimes migrants aren’t being smuggled. They’re being trafficked. This agent, who had opened up a tractor-trailer to discover dozens of migrants inside, felt that getting picked up by Border Patrol averted them from a worse fate.
Because they feel the public tends to misperceive their work, most Border Patrol agents told me that they tell their children not to tell their classmates what daddy or mommy does for a living. Because they feel embattled, Hess said, many Border Patrol agents tend to be insular. Outside of work, they socialize with each other and, invariably, conversations turn toward work. The insularity is not healthy, he added, because it reinforces a suspicious world view, one that leads agents to sit in restaurants with their backs to the walls and their eyes trained on the door.
Because Border Patrol chaplains understand all of this, it is sometimes easier for an agent to speak to them than to an outsider.
“With a psychologist, an agent would have to explain everything,” Hess said.
Another chaplain, Danny Martinez, points out that utilizing the government’s employee assistance program benefit, means picking up the phone. Chaplains, on the other hand, are there, in person, doing the patrol work and ready to talk face-to-face at any time.
They are often first responders, EMTs to the Border Patrol agents’ psycho-spiritual needs. When an agent approaches Hess or another chaplain for assistance, the chaplain’s first task is to figure out if the agent can actually be helped by ministry, or if the agent should be approaching a psychologist, instead.
Martinez asks agents, “Tell me about your situation, tell me how you feel.” When they finish, he asks, “Do you mind if I pray for you? And you would feel this heaviness, this burden, this weight upon your shoulders just lift up.”
But who prays for Martinez and the other chaplains?
Martinez admits it can be difficult to hear agents unload about finding dead migrants in the brush. There are shootings, and in the Rio Grande Valley, there are splashdowns, when “bad guys, they have merchandise in their vehicle and for them to avoid getting caught, they’ll drive right into the river,” Martinez explained. “It’s dangerous for everybody.”
Because listening to someone recount their trauma can actually be traumatic for the listener, something known in psychology as secondary trauma, Martinez turns to his Christian faith for support.
“Everything that has been loaded upon me, I simply transfer it to Him,” Martinez said. “And I just say, ‘Jesus Christ fill me up with your joy and I’m good to go.’”
Martinez also admits that the agency suffers from an epidemic of repressed feelings. “If you have pent-up emotions eventually you’re gonna break down and that’s when the chaplains come in,” he said. Depersonalization and repression are also built into the job: Agents spend the day apprehending “bodies,” not people. They also tell me that they try to keep their conversations with migrants to a minimum, so they don’t get emotionally involved.
But Hess and other chaplains say that most of the time, agents come to them less with problems about the work and more with family issues.
Martinez acknowledges that, for some agents, apprehending migrant families can be upsetting work to take home. “But then again it’s the job we signed up for — border security, not immigration law. Enforcing things — that’s what our job is.”
I think, then, to the morning, when we went out at 5 a.m. so I could see how the Border Patrol agents work. We started outside the wall, driving on the levee road wedged between grapefruit groves and the concrete barrier looming in the dark. Immediately, adults and children stepped out of the trees: a woman with a 9-month-old baby tied to her back in a blue sheet, another woman with a young child, and a family of four. The mother of the family wore a red skirt and one black shoe — the other missing — and her 8-year-old boy stood only in socks, having lost both his shoes on the way. She and her husband carried nothing other than their kids and small water bottles.
At first, I wasn’t aware I was crying; I only realized it when I felt my eyes leaking. Astounded by the journey these people made to get here — by the way they set out on the road with little more than the clothes on their back, placing their fates so firmly in God’s hands — I see absolute faith in God standing before me.
As I looked at them — exhausted, coated with dirt, missing shoes, but thanking God for getting them here, to this place, to this moment — the ground below me swayed; for a moment I thought I might collapse. But I couldn’t. There was work to be done. So I shut down my feelings instead and the earth held steady.
And I’m not even a Border Patrol agent.
A van soon arrived to take them to a processing center and the agents were off to apprehend more migrants, an unrelenting pursuit by truck and on foot as they found three hiding in the branches of a tree and another in a box outside a nearby warehouse.
Right now, said Martinez, the sheer number of apprehensions is overwhelming agents. “It’s so much. It’s like a revolving door. It’s nonstop. It’s constant and it can get to you.”
Agents admit that — regardless of their politics — dealing with families sometimes tugs at the soul. As a father who has lost a child, Hess feels upset and frustrated to see parents taking the risky journey to the United States. Another agent, who asked to remain anonymous, remarked that the job can strike agents in unexpected moments: “You might be working at a processing center and you process a family and their kid’s name is the same as your child’s, things like this.” This isn’t uncommon as many of the border patrol agents are themselves Latino.
One agent who came to the U.S. from Mexico with his mother when he was 11 tells me that while he doesn’t feel bad apprehending migrants or families, “you have to find a way to make meaning out of the job.” For him, that meaning comes from saving the lives of young mothers who have collapsed in the brush from exposure and exhaustion and teeter near death.
Chaplains sometimes aid in helping agents make sense of work that doesn’t always seem to make sense. For example, when I’m there in the Rio Grande Valley, shadowing Hess and other agents, we make our way through thick, unforgiving brush. There’s thorns, there’s mud, you’re crawling through brambles and sweating in the South Texas heat. And it’s only a few hours into what would be, for a border patrol agent, a 10-hour shift.
Everything starts to look alike and — when you’re hot and dehydrated — it’s easy to get disoriented, to start moving in circles, to get lost.
In fact, that morning, an agent does.
Border Patrol agent Jesse Moreno stands on the edge of a thicket, a silver whistle in his mouth emitting a high-pitched call so the agent can navigate out of the woods. Usually agents try to be quiet when they’re pursuing “bodies,” but saving a life is paramount.
The agent emerges from the trees and — red-faced, sweating profusely — kneels on the grass. Moreno and a Texas National Guardsman rush to her.
Once it’s clear that she’s fine, Moreno heads back in to the brush. Hess and I wait along the edge, on a residential street of a low-income neighborhood, a stray dog eying us as we stand talking.
“Individually, you have to search for the light,” Hess said, “Sometimes life gets hard and it’s easier to just stay in the darkness because sometimes it takes effort. It’s like walking through the brush — it takes effort to get out of that darkness.”
But it’s easy to see how the work could be crazy-making when Moreno and the others emerge from the brush with a half a dozen cuffed migrants. Moreno looks at one of the men, “Don’t I know you?” he asked, in Spanish.
“Yeah, you picked me up last week. ... Thursday.”
“What’s today? Tuesday?” Moreno paused and counted. “That was four days ago.”
Moreno shakes his head; the migrant gives a sheepish smile.
Other agents recount similar incidents, which sound like scripts out of some migration-themed theater of the absurd. In this moment, it’s easy to see how the job could feel both overwhelming and futile: You catch someone, send them back, and then turn around and do it again the next week. Or maybe the next time they come, you won’t catch them.
I gesture to the group of half a dozen migrants — who are now sitting on the curb, their personal belongings bagged, waiting to be picked up and taken to a processing center — and I ask Hess why some people are born on one side of the border and not the other?
“I just can’t help but think that it’s not chance,” said Hess. “God has a purpose for all of our lives ... as a chaplain, my job is not to figure out why you are given what you are given. My job is to figure out things in my life. It’s kind of like raising your kids — they grow when they learn things, not when you do it for them.”
“When you figure things out on your own, there’s a lot of personal strength that comes from that.” And that’s the strength the chaplains can use to help other agents.
After their first meeting at the hospital, Olsommer accompanied Hess to a funeral, which is another chaplain duty. A fellow agent had lost a young son to a brain tumor. Hess was in nearly daily contact with the family after the child’s diagnosis. In the weeks before the boy’s death, he often visited him in the hospital, having quiet conversations during which he addressed the boy’s concerns about death.
Sitting among the mourners, Olsommer listened to Hess speak. “It was the most raw, genuine, heartfelt eulogy I have ever heard,” she recalled. “He knew what it was like for that family.”
Drawing on the darkest moments of his life to offer this family — and all the mourners and every agent he ministers to — light is, Hess said, his purpose.
Using his own grief, Hess helped Olsommer walk through her own, leading her to “find peace,” she said, and shoring up her belief that “everything happens for a reason.” Hess guided Olsommer towards the comfort of knowing that her father “is in a better place,” she added.
At Olsommer’s request, Hess also helped her find a nondenominational church. Steadied, she was able to move forward in her career and life. She has just completed training to join the agency’s horse patrol. Today, she said, that while she misses her father, she feels him with her when she’s in the field.
“He’s looking over me,” she said, “protecting me when I’m out there on the border doing my job.”
And though Olsommer is on her feet, when I step into Hess’s office at the Kingsville station, it’s not hard to sense his ongoing struggle to maintain equilibrium. On a clipboard on his desk is a quote from Latter-day Saint apostle Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: “Expecting a trouble free life because you are a good person is like expecting an angry bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian.”
Among the book titles tucked into a corner of his desk are “However long and hard the road,” also by Elder Holland, and “Making sense of suffering.” Next to “First Responders Bible” and “Spiritual survival for law enforcement” stands another title, Hess’s father’s book about surviving a plane crash in Antarctica: “Blind descent.” Making brief mention of Hess’s father’s time in Vietnam, the book offers, Hess said, “the only window I’ve had to that period of his life.”
Just as Border Patrol agents typically don’t talk about their jobs, his father, Hess said, never talked about what happened in Vietnam. Hess doesn’t remember his father’s deployment, nor does he remember spending part of that period in Nuevo Laredo, his mother’s hometown in Mexico. But his father’s military career led Hess to both his current faith and role as a chaplain.
When the Hess family was living in Germany, he dated the daughter of another military family who were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Not long after the Hess family ended up in Texas, his girlfriend’s father was relocated to Fort Hood. While visiting his girlfriend, Hess went to services with the family, which eventually led to his conversion and serving a church mission to Argentina. Reminders of that missionary experience — like the traditional cup and straw out of which Argentinians drink yerba mate — sit on his desk in his Kingsville station office.
Hess says his mission made a tremendous impact on him spiritually and that it influences how he ministers to Border Patrol agents today. “I learned as a missionary to serve people and help people feel loved,” he reflected. “I wanted people to remember the way they felt even if they don’t remember what they learned.”
“As a missionary you’re rejected a lot,” Hess added, “so I learned to offer something they would take.”
Just as his mission deepened Hess’s spirituality, today, Hess is moved by Border Patrol agents’ continued faith in him — a faith that, in turn, reinforces his own. “I ask myself why in the world would anyone come talk to you, if you couldn’t fix your own marriage?” Hess said. “God will use you; God will use a leaky bucket. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.”
Hess leaves me with a stack of papers. It includes a printout of an email he once sent to his fellow agents. Titled “Your Darkest Hour,” an excerpt reads:
“If you’ve ever had the experience of your flashlight going out while working in the brush, you’re well acquainted with the feeling and frustration of not being able to see the path before you. … Much like losing the power of a flashlight in the brush, we need to learn to use that light which we do have and not focus on the darkness. In the brush, we learn to adapt to the light provided by the night sky, we may use distant light to guide off of, or, if we can humble ourselves, we might ask for some help. Even on the darkest of nights we can take comfort in the knowledge that it is just a matter of time before the sun comes up.”