National Guard counterdrug unit has been active in New Hampshire for decades

  • National Guard Staff Sargent Rick Frost talks with Stand Up Laconia founder and chair Claire Persson, center, Kelley Gaspa from the Partner for Public Healh who is the regional substance misuse prevention coordinator at their meeting at Laconia High School Wednesday. Frost has been working with the group for the last four years advising on a number of issues, including drug-related issues. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • National Guard Staff Sgt. Rick Frost listens during a Stand Up Laconia meeting at Laconia High School on Wednesday with founder and chairwoman Claire Persson (center) and Kelley Gaspa from the Partnership for Public Health. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/7/2016 8:36:45 PM

State Sen. Jeanie Forrester’s plan to use the National Guard to help fight New Hampshire’s drug crisis has been one of the most contentious issues so far in the Republican race for governor.

But New Hampshire National Guard members have assisted local law enforcement and community organizations to keep drugs out of the state since long before hundreds of heroin and fentanyl overdoses started stacking up a few years ago. Starting in the 1990s, the federally funded National Guard Counterdrug Program has been working on investigations and community outreach across New Hampshire.

Headquartered in Concord, the Guard currently has seven full-time counterdrug members helping the DEA, New Hampshire State Police, the Attorney General’s Counter Drug Task Force and Concord and Manchester police. At the program’s peak, it had 27 full-time staff members.

The counterdrug staffers mostly sit behind computers, helping agents piece together tips and information that lead to drug arrests. They also assist local drug prevention programs in communities including Nashua, Laconia, Salem, Berlin and Bow.

“We don’t have Guardsmen out there on the front lines, we are behind the scenes,” said New Hampshire National Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Greg Heilshorn.

But that doesn’t mean their work is invisible. The unit was involved in a recent investigation resulting in a $1.4 million methamphetamine bust at Manchester’s El Patron bar.

“We can be a force multiplier – agents who otherwise would be stuck behind a desk are freed up to do more of the legwork they do best,” Heilshorn said.

Manchester police Chief Nick Willard said two Guardsmen assist his department gathering intelligence on drug dealers.

“It’s in an unarmed and nonuniformed capacity,” Willard said. “All resources are important to us in this current crisis, we always take an all-hands-on approach.”

Forrester’s assertion that the National Guard is already assisting law enforcement in anti-drug trafficking efforts appeared to catch Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas by surprise at a Tuesday night WMUR debate. Gatsas told Forrester he was not aware the guard was used as support to local police.

“Have you talked to the chief of police?” Gatsas asked Forrester on the debate stage. “I think I talk to the chief of police on a daily basis about the problems we have in this city and he’s never told me about the National Guard on the front lines fighting this battle.”

Forrester pressed Gatsas repeatedly, saying he had not done enough to stem the drug problem in his city.

“So you’re not aware that the National Guard is used as support to deal with the opioid and heroin crisis in Manchester. Is that what you’re telling me?” she said.

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you,” Gatsas replied.

“Okay. Wow. I think you need to talk to someone,” Forrester said finally.

In an interview after Tuesday’s debate, Gatsas said he knew of two National Guardsmen who work with the department as “statisticians, not martial law,” and said Forrester was misrepresenting their duties.

Gatsas called Forrester’s plan to use the National Guard in a more active role a “laughably unserious proposal” on Wednesday.

“The senator’s suggestion that we have National Guardsmen patrolling the streets of Manchester with our police officers is false and a ridiculous attempt to mislead voters,” he said.

Willard said Gatsas is aware of the two Guardsmen serving as analysts with the Manchester Police Department.

“We don’t have uniformed armed National Guard in the city of Manchester, that’s how I took the exchange,” he said.

Forrester’s own plan for how the National Guard could assist on the drug crisis has changed in recent weeks. She first introduced the concept in June of deploying the National Guard to the United States’s southern border to do training and patrols with other states.

The idea expanded during a Monitor editorial board meeting last month, when she suggested the National Guard could also be deployed to New Hampshire’s northern border with Canada and talked about the possibility of guardsmen assisting local law enforcement with anti-trafficking efforts on the New Hampshire/Massachusetts border.

“It’s a conversation. It’s an idea we should consider,” Forrester said, adding that the idea of using the military for civil law enforcement didn’t trouble her.

“We have a heroin and opioid crisis, we have to get serious about it, so no, it doesn’t bother me at all,” she said.

Her opponents mocked the idea.

“I don’t think that’s a well-thought-out plan,” Gatsas said in an interview with the Boston Globe. “Putting National Guardsmen on the border – are you going to stop every car coming from Massachusetts? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Executive Councilor Chris Sununu was incredulous when he heard the proposal.

“That is a horrible idea,” he said in a Monitor editorial board meeting. “Militarizing a border patrol between us and Massachusetts . . . that is a terrible idea that should never be implemented on any level. Did someone really say that?”

Since then, Forrester has said she would wait to talk to federal, state and local law enforcement to see how to best assist them.

“I believe it’s critically important we call in the experts,” she said Wednesday.

But she is not ruling out her original idea of sending New Hampshire’s National Guard members to Texas for training.

“What I would do is have a conversation with the governor of Texas and other governors about how we might assist, understanding the federal government is in control,” she said. “It is an international problem and we all need to be working together on this crisis.”

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)


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