BASTROP, Texas – No citizens were rounded up and imprisoned at Wal-Mart. Tanks didn’t rumble down city streets in a declaration of martial law.
Eric Johnston wore his handgun on his hip Wednesday, but didn’t really believe soldiers participating in one of the largest U.S. military training exercises in history were coming to confiscate it.
Still, he was ready if Jade Helm 15 came to the worst.
“I would like to think that if the situation were to turn afoul, many more of our people would stand up and come to assist,” said Johnston, a retired Arizona sheriff’s deputy and the Texas organizer of a national group called Counter Jade Helm.
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In fact, the seven-state war exercise launched in the exact manner Army officials have spent months patiently describing to conspiracy theorists: With no fanfare or cause for alarm, and almost entirely out of sight to the general public. Pops of gunfire echoed beyond the front gates of Camp Swift near Bastrop, Texas, though that hardly seemed out of the ordinary on what is a training ground for the Texas National Guard.
Parts of Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Utah are also hosting the three-month training exercise, which the Army has acknowledged as unique given the size and scope. Military officials have said the topography in selected areas is ideal to replicate foreign combat zones.
Suspicions intensified after some conservative political websites seized on an Army map that labeled Texas and Utah as “hostile” for the purposes of the simulation. Fears spilled into public view in April when about 200 people packed a community meeting here in Bastrop County and questioned an Army commander about whether martial law was imminent.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott even ordered the State Guard to monitor the military’s movements, drawing sharp rebuke from critics who accused the new Republican governor of pandering to fringe theorists. At least two people mailed tinfoil to his office, with one note reading, “For your hat!”
No other governor greeted Jade Helm with similar actions, and Abbott has deflected the mocking as overblown. His office had received 15 calls by lunchtime about Jade Helm, and aides were ready to answer.
Bastrop Mayor Ken Kesselus has spent weeks trying to dampen impressions that his city of 8,000 people is a hive of “wackos and conspiracy theorists.”
“The last few weeks I’ve had 22 calls. One was from a guy in South Texas who thinks (President Barack) Obama is a communist, a Muslim and evil person and wanted me to warn everybody to hold onto their guns,” Kesselus said. “The other 21 calls were from press.”
Johnston has 27 volunteers – some armed– positioned across Texas, including a monitor he described as a retired Army ranger. He described them as a neighborhood watch.
Johnston, who has a white handlebar mustache and conceals his gun beneath his untucked shirt, emphasized that Counter Jade Helm is not “radical” like other groups and doesn’t believe a military takeover is around the corner.
But he has his concerns.
“It doesn’t make sense that if they’re going to practice infiltration skills if they’re going to be in uniform,” he said. “I don’t think this is a prelude to martial law. But they’re just not being transparent on what they’re doing.”