Politicians across the country jockeyed to get a piece of the “Jade Helm 15” action after Gov. Greg Abbott (R) asked the State Guard to monitor the planned U.S. military training exercise. Texans waded into the fever swamp of conspiracy theories surrounding the training exercise in recent weeks and took some of their elected representatives along for the ride.
But what’s lost in all that noise is the training exercise itself: how service members plan to execute it and what the military aims to accomplish.
An Army release about the training exercise in March described “Jade Helm 15” as a routine, multi-state operation taking place from July 15 to Sept. 15. The release noted that the training exercise is in a class apart from other operations due to its “size and scope.”
“The public can expect nothing much different from their day-to-day activities since much of exercise will be conducted in remote areas,” the release read. “The most noticeable effect the exercise may have on the local communities is an increase in vehicle and military air traffic and its associated noise.”
The release also stated that communities hosting the exercise could expect economic benefits from the Army’s fuel and food purchases and hotel lodging.
But in terms of staging, plans for the training exercise have apparently changed significantly since that statement was issued in March. California, Colorado and Nevada were all initially reported to be hosting parts of the exercise — and were depicted on a map “leaked” by conspiracy theory website All News Pipeline that labelled Texas as “hostile” territory — but are no longer involved. The states currently expected to host the operation are Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida, according to an updated Army press release dated April 20.
The most detailed information available on the training exercise itself comes not from either of those releases but from a slideshow prepared by US Army Special Operations Command. Local radio station WTAW made available both the audio and visual presentation that Army representatives gave to the Commissioners Court of Brazos County, Texas in February while seeking their approval for the training exercise.
The slideshow explained that the exercise would involve Army special forces in addition to Navy SEALS, Air Force special operations command, Marines special operations command, and the 82nd Airborne Division. It also listed 17 participating areas within Texas, although officials in Victoria and Gilead counties have since said the military canceled plans to hold part of the training exercise there:
The slideshow also spelled out why the Army specifically approached communities in Texas about hosting “Jade Helm 15,” citing the state’s rural landscape as well as its historic support for America’s troops:
Tom Meade, an Army spokesman and retired Green Beret, explained in the accompanying audio presentation why “Jade Helm 15” is considered an “unconventional warfare” exercise. Meade said that while US special forces have been conducting unconventional warfare — assisting and supporting insurgency — for over 50 years, troops had adopted a counter-insurgency role over the last 15 years in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re bringing these guys back and we’re dusting off the skills that they already have — because every Green Beret learns unconventional warfare when he leaves the qualification course,” Meade said. “A lot of these guys haven’t practiced it in the last few years so we’re bringing those skills back to the forefront for them.”
The “leaked” version of the slideshow posted by All News Pipeline, the conspiracy theory website, differed somewhat from the one Meade presented to the Commissioners Court of Brazos County. That version contained a slide that said the training exercise offered “the opportunity to work with civilians to gain their trust and an understanding of the issues.” Another slide said local residents could expect some individuals to “conduct suspicious activities designed to prepare them for complex environments overseas” or “be wearing civilian attire and driving civilian vehicles.”
Those slides, which are not included in the presentation posted by WTAW, were widely cited in conspiracy theory blog posts on “Jade Helm 15.” While the conspiracy theories themselves lack real evidence, there’s something to the concerns about soldiers blending in with the general population for the purposes of the training exercise.
A realistic military training exercise took a deadly turn in 2002, when a Moore County, North Carolina sheriff’s deputy pulled over what he thought was a suspicious-looking truck and shot two soldiers, killing one and wounding another. The soldiers were participating in an exercise similar to “Jade Helm 15” known as “Robin Sage” and had believed that the sheriff’s deputy was playing a role in the operation, too.
The Army runs “Robin Sage,” which is akin to a final exam for Green Beret candidates, multiple times a year in a staging area off Fort Bragg that encompasses several counties. That 2002 incident led the Army to immediately alter the way it conducted that exercise, including ordering participants to wear their uniforms and ending the practice of allowing local law enforcement officials to role-play alongside the soldiers.
Separately, Reason magazine’s Jesse Walker, writing in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, pointed to a 1999 exercise in Oakland, California that posited the “Jade Helm 15” conspiracy theories were an extreme manifestation of the current backlash against police militarization in the U.S.
The exercise, known as “Operation Urban Warrior,” attracted vocal opposition. Twenty-two demonstrators were arrested for storming then-Mayor Jerry Brown’s office and demanding a meeting to protest his embrace of the Marines’ urban combat simulation. One detained protest organizer told the San Francisco Chronicle that the group was “angry at the impact the Marines are having on the community — the noise, the intimidation, the message it sends.”
That sounds a lot like the complaints raised at an April 27 meeting at the Bastrop County, Texas courthouse, where over a hundred residents gathered to pepper Army Lt. Colonel Mark Lastoria with questions about “Jade Helm 15.” Residents’ responses ran the gamut from “would the court be offended if I told the colonel I didn’t believe a single word that he just said?” to “I appreciate the explanations you’ve been given because it’s alleviating a lot of our concerns.”
“You may have issues with the federal government. You may have issues with the administration,” Lastoria told the denizens of Bastrop County. “So be it. But this institution right here has been with you for over 240 years. Period.”
TPM illustration. Images via AP and Shutterstock/Ludvig.