The South Dakota National Guard is deploying on mission to the U.S. southern border. And the operation is being funded by a billionaire, not the government, Military.com has learned.
Soldiers will serve on state active-duty orders, meaning that traditionally the state would cover the cost of the mission. However, in this case the tab is being picked up by the private Tennessee-based Willis and Reba Johnson's Foundation.
"The border is a national security crisis that requires the kind of sustained response only the National Guard can provide," South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, said in a statement Tuesday.
Roughly 50 guardsmen will deploy on the mission, according to a South Dakota Guard spokesman. However, the mission is still in its early planning stages. It’s unclear where the troops will deploy on the border, which unit will be sent or what the mission will be.
The National Guard declined to comment for this story or answer questions about the practice of allowing private donors to fund missions. A query to the Pentagon about the mission did not receive a response.
Willis Johnson is the founder of Copart, an online vehicle auction service, and has amassed a $2.2 billion fortune, according to Forbes. He resigned as CEO of Copart in 2010, according to reporting from the Nashville Post.
He is a Republican mega-donor, donating at least $1.5 million to conservative causes, including $50,000 to the "Trump Victory" political action committee, according to reporting from Bloomberg.
Former President Donald Trump made border security a key part of his presidency, ordering the deployment of troops to the border in April 2018 under a mission known as Operation Faithful Patriot. One of President Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to suspend Trump’s emergency declaration at the border, halting some government funds. The Associated Press reported that Trump is expected to visit the border with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, later this week.
Ian Fury, a spokesman for Noem, wouldn't confirm if Willis Johnson runs the foundation. When Military.com reached Johnson via telephone, he wouldn't confirm his identity and declined to be interviewed.
However, tax forms including for the foundation and donation records for Johnson share the same address in Franklin, Tennessee.
"Governor Noem welcomes any such donations to help alleviate the cost to South Dakota taxpayers," Fury told Military.com. Fury declined to disclose how much of a donation was made to cover the mission, saying revealing that would be "a security risk."
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.