Despite the Internet chatter about trains with shackles and Wal-Mart stores being closed to be used as detention camps, this small West Texas town on Wednesday seemed to be surviving the start of Jade Helm 15, the military exercise that some people fear is actually a ruse for a federal takeover of the state.
No military equipment or personnel were visible. No tanks were rumbling past the beige-metal community center on Main Street next door to the fire station here, the scene of 4-H Club meetings and family reunions. But that did not mean that people were not on the alert.
“I’ve been looking,” said Jack Campbell, 61, who was picking up his mail at the post office.
Campbell said that he had concerns about the exercise, and that he purchased extra ammunition for the weapons he keeps in his home.
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“Just in case,” added Campbell, an emergency physician in San Angelo, 20 miles away. “People are just vigilant. Not vigilantes, but vigilant. They don’t want to be caught off guard.”
Another resident said a friend of his, a Vietnam veteran, started burying some of his firearms to hide them. A farmer was rumored to have taken a different approach, by buying 20,000 rounds of ammunition. The superintendent of the school district thought he saw low-flying military cargo planes overhead. Members of the Christoval Volunteer Fire Department, which owns the community center, signed an agreement with military officials stating — oddly to some, suspiciously to others — that the Army will pay for any damage to the building after it uses it.
Sindy Miller, who runs a hair salon on Main Street, said fears of a military takeover have been the talk of Christoval, which is southeast of Midland.
“They’re worried that they’re going to come in and take their firearms away,” Miller said. “Martial law, basically. I try not to listen to all these conspiracy-theory-type people. All they’re worried about is their beer and their guns.”
Jade Helm 15, an eight-week exercise that has generated paranoia for months fueled by conservative bloggers and Internet postings, began Wednesday in Texas and six other states: Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Utah.
The Army’s Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other special operations troops will be conducting drills on private property, military bases and some public facilities. According to military documents, more than 1,200 service members will participate in the operation in Texas, in more than a dozen mostly small towns and rural counties.
“The public can expect little disruption in their day-to-day activities since much of the exercise will be conducted in remote areas,” the organizer of the exercise, the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., said in a statement Monday.
But in a larger sense, Jade Helm 15 has already caused disruptions, particularly in Texas.
On the orders of Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas State Guard will monitor Jade Helm 15 from Camp Mabry in Austin, the state capital. So will at least one national group of unofficial monitors and protesters that calls itself Counter Jade Helm. It plans to have teams of volunteers follow Army vehicles and post their locations to its website.
Campbell and others here said much of the paranoia over Jade Helm 15 is the outgrowth of the anti-Obama sentiment that is widespread in Texas.
Off-base training exercises involving role-playing are not new, but the size and scope of Jade Helm 15 make it unusual.
The military exercise will train special operations troops in what Army planners call “unconventional warfare.” The exercise is being conducted in rural Texas because the military needed “large areas of undeveloped land with low population densities with access to towns,” and wanted soldiers to adapt to unfamiliar terrain as well as social and economic conditions, according to Army documents.
In Christoval, an unincorporated town of about 500, Scott Degenaer, 53, smoked a cigarillo outside his home and said he was not sure what to think about Jade Helm 15. But he had suspicions. Two flags flapped in the breeze on his porch: an American flag and a Confederate battle flag. Signs on his house and in the yard read “Pray for America” and “Warning: The door you are about to break down is locked for your protection!”
Degenaer, a Navy veteran, said that he saw a Black Hawk helicopter flying over Christoval on Sunday, and that he understood the paranoia that would lead some people to bury firearms.
While much of the attention on Jade Helm 15 has focused on conspiracy theories, Army planners have spent months quietly persuading private property owners and small-town leaders to welcome them to their communities. Many local officials and ranchers have granted troops access to their land and buildings, without asking for compensation in return.
In the West Texas town of Eldorado, longtime mayor John Nikolauk and other local officials said they considered the Internet rumors about Jade Helm 15 far-fetched.
“If the government has an idea they can come in and take over, and take guns away, the stupidest place they could come is West Texas,” said Bill Ford, a commissioner in Tom Green County whose district includes Christoval. “There’s more guns and ammo here and more people willing to use them than any combat area they’ve fought in.”