BASTROP (KXAN) — With nowhere to stand, and an overflow room just as packed, people from Bastrop County and other areas came armed with questions Monday about Operation Jade Helm 15. The military training exercise will happen this summer on private property in the county.
“We understand there’s concern out there on social media; there’s a significant amount of inaccurate information, which I hope I clarified today for a lot of people,” Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria, director of public affairs with the United States Army Special Operations Command. “What I want them to know is: We’re going to be conducting the training exercise safely, and courteously. We’re not going to interfere with their privacy or their rights with this.”
What is Jade Helm 15?
Lastoria said Jade Helm 15, an eight-week exercise from July 15 to Sept. 15, is an exercise to train Special Operations soldiers in all branches of the military for unconventional warfare. It is happening in not only Texas, but Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
The Army Special Operations Command announced the multistate exercise last month. Many Bastrop County neighbors who came to the meeting asked why the soldiers do not just train at Fort Bragg, N.C., where they have thousands of acres of land. Lastoria said Realistic Military Training, or RMT, happens off of federal reservations and on private property because soldiers would have to learn how to adapt to unfamiliar terrain.
He said people hear about RMTs and volunteer their private land to military training, which is what Lastoria said happened in Bastrop. When asked, officials said it would not release information on where the property is because the land is privately owned, acknowledging that it would be up to the owner to do so. Officials said no one is paid for the land or will receive a tax break of any kind.
How will this impact Bastrop?
Sixty. That’s the number of troops Lastoria said would take part in Jade Helm 15 in Bastrop. When it comes to the town and impacting people, Lastoria said there will be two Humvees and water buffalo, a tank used to carry water, that people may see around the city.
He said part of the training includes role playing, with soldiers in their uniform and others in civilian clothing, but officials assure they will do their training only on the fenced-in property.
When questioned about about noise, Lastoria said they will not use live ammunition — but may use blanks — on the land. He explained to neighbors that they will not be able to hear them from acres away. There will be one night where a helicopter is used, but Lastoria said neighbors will be notified ahead of time. According to the United States Army Special Operations Command, announcements will be made using reverse 911 calls, like when they have their night training with the helicopter.
Lastoria said “risk assessment” was part of their planning for this mission when it comes to the possibility of injuries, brush fires and other incidents. He said there will be three special force medics on hand, as well as fire extinguishers. Depending on summer conditions, Lastoria said they will not use smoke grenades if there is a possibility of a brush fire.
Officials said they would have to update law enforcement and local leaders with what they are up to and the following day’s plans.
Lastoria estimated the operation would bring in about $150,000 to the area because of food, fuel and shopping.
Social media has been abuzz with with theories that the exercise is preparing for martial law. Lastoria said this is not the case, but Monday’s meeting showed the amount of distrust between people and the government.
During the Q&A, some people explained how they still did not believe Lastoria and other officials, and both rooms erupted with applause.
“If somebody was going to do something on private property, why would I need to know at all?” explained Bastrop neighbor Tom Watts. “If the public wouldn’t have to be involved in any way whatsoever, if they’re not going to be out on the roads doing roadblocks or stopping people, this little exercise (Monday’s meeting) seems a little overkill.”
It is a question many others had since the operation would only include 60 people on private land, but Lastoria said they are required to tell local law enforcement and government of what they are doing.
“My primary concern is that it’s a large-scale military operation, and it’s affecting several states, specifically in the southern section of the United States,” said Daniel Ducloux, a Bastrop neighbor who asked questions during the meeting.
Ducloux, who said he has a history degree from the University of Texas, said he respects the fact that there was a meeting, but still remains skeptical.
“I understand history, I understand that governments go tyrannical, and I understand that governments disarm citizens and that governments suppress citizens,” he said. “So to me, to see what’s going on and why they’re here, maybe that’s not the reason, but I think it’s our duty as Americans to ask those kinds of questions.”
Monday’s meeting also had people who said they don’t believe anything strange is going on, just that it is a training for special operations.
“I’m thrilled. I was glad to hear the presentation today,” said Don Nichols, a Bastrop resident and Vietnam resident. “We’re training the military and specials operations people specifically to go out and defend our country so we can have that right.”
Nichols and his wife Barbara sat through the entire two-hour long meeting. They said they believe no matter what, people will believe what they want.
“For me, today was kind of painful to watch the disrespect I saw to the lieutenant colonel during the presentation and I personally went up to him and apologized to him for other people and their rudeness,” said Nichols.
County Judge Paul Pape said he believed overall the meeting went very well and was impressed with the turnout. He facilitated the Q&A and read questions from people in the overflow room.
“People were respectful, a lot of emotion, I appreciate that,” said Pape. “This is what democracy is all about…Good information was shared today.”
While it seemed more people were vocal with more concerns than praises, Pape said he has received a lot of support from people in the community, phone calls, messages and out in the streets.
“People appreciate that we support military training, it’s a big part of our history, a big part of our commitment,” said Pape. “I hear what was said here today, but it was not unanimously opposed to this proposal, there were many people here today, very happy that we’re doing this and support us in it.”
He said he believes many people would have voted for it if there was a need to vote, but he explained they were confident when they heard the information from military officials.
“It’s just not a matter that needs to be voted on by the public, they voted for us and they trust us to represent them in these kind of issues,” said Pape. “It’s not the first military training carried out in Bastrop County.”
Pape said they were not well prepared for the amount of people that showed up. He said the video and sound system in the conference room was inadequate and plans on fixing that.
Gov. Greg Abbott has directed Maj. Gen. Gerald Betty, commander of the Texas State Guard, to monitor the operation. Betty will provide regular updates to the governor’s office to ensure Texans’ “safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed” during the training.