Phelps Speaks on Robin Sage Suit
On a cold Saturday seven and a half years ago, Stephen Phelps lay on his back in a church parking lot outside Robbins.
He was bleeding from two bullet wounds and wondering why he'd been shot by a Moore County sheriff's deputy, Randall Butler.
Phelps recently won more than $650,000 in damages in a lawsuit he brought against Moore County and the deputy. No criminal charges were ever brought, and civilian and military authorities concluded that what happened was nobody's fault, just the result of a tragic misunderstanding.
At the time, Phelps was a sergeant in the U.S. Army and on the verge of completing the arduous Special Operations Qualification Course to earn his Green Beret and join Special Forces.
Phelps and another soldier, 1st Lt. Tallas Tomeny, were pretending to be infiltrated soldiers helping resistance fighters in an imaginary country called "Pineland." For some four decades, civilian volunteers in Moore and (now) 14 other counties have played roles as citizens of that notional nation while other soldiers (usually 82nd Airborne) take the part of an occupying force known as "Opfor" from another country, "Opforland" to the north. The exercise is called Robin Sage.
'Truth Come Out'
Phelps said in a recent interview that he filed his lawsuit as a way of getting to tell his side of the story "so the truth could finally come out" as he puts it. Going to court meant trying to make the jury understand something of what Green Beret soldiers do, and something about unconventional war and how they have to train for it.
"Many times I wondered if I was damaging our case by trying to put things into terms that people who had no concept of unconventional war could understand," he said. "At the same time, I felt that had I not done that, then part of the truth would not have come out. Special Forces and the Army gave me a lot of opportunities to be put in situations explaining something to people who had little or no concept of what you are trying to explain to them, or the subject you are trying to speak about that was completely foreign. Those situations really helped me put it in terms the jury could understand, and although defense attorneys didn't want to understand it, it helped them as well.
"I think that it was, in their minds, open and shut. All they had to do was prove I was a Special Forces guy -- who, everybody knows, is a steely-eyed killer. It is a misinterpretation of what all American forces, especially Special Forces, are faced with today. It is nice to see the truth come out. I am pretty excited about that. The prevailing feeling is, to some degree, the feeling of relief that it is over."
The two soldiers were in Moore County on a pretended mission to scope out a railroad bridge near Robbins for future "demolition" as the course moved to tackle combat scenarios.
They were riding with Charlie Leiber, a longtime civilian volunteer from Seagrove, in his pickup when they spotted a sheriff's deputy in a patrol car pulling out to follow them. One of the scenarios practiced in Robin Sage involves dealing with law enforcement who are understood to be an enemy-controlled police force. They practice evasion, bribery, kills and capture. Other soldiers practice raids rescuing prisoners. One such scenario had been carried out that morning.
Butler was on patrol that morning. The truck looked suspicious to him, driving about for more than an hour in cold weather with one man riding in the open bed. That was Phelps. When the driver took evasive action, Butler blue-lighted the pickup and pulled it over into the parking lot at Acorn Ridge Baptist Church.
The encounter escalated, according to testimony in the just-concluded federal civil case. Butler -- who swore he thought his life was in imminent danger from armed men -- shot Phelps twice. He shot and killed Tomeny.
He didn't know they were soldiers, and Leiber didn't tell him when Butler had him in the patrol car checking his license.
Phelps, Tomeny and Leiber all were staying "in role" and thought Butler was part of a training scenario -- almost exactly the same kind of police-conflict scenario played out today as part of Robin Sage, but in other counties. Moore County doesn't play games with soldiers, according to Sheriff Lane Carter, who says they never have and never will.
The most local law enforcement agencies in Moore County do to help the Army is to block off roads where scenarios are taking place as a public safety measure.
The Army now requires all vehicles used in war games to bear red marking placards and all who take part wear some indication even if in civilian attire.
'He Got Angry'
Both Phelps and Leiber have different recollections from the deputy's of what happened that chilly Saturday. They are sure Butler could have had no chance to see any part of the backpack's disassembled M4 assault rifle, according to their testifimony.
On the other hand, Butler vividly recalls the moment he glimpsed parts of the M4 and -- unfamiliar with military weapons, thinking he'd seen two machine guns -- pulling the pack away from Tomeny to hurl it behind him, safely out of reach. The next few seconds ended in gunfire and death and recollections of the three surviving eyewitnesses differ.
From the first, every investigative agency from State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) to district attorney, to Special Forces, to the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) concluded the conflict at Acorn Ridge was a tragic case of mistaken identity.
"I wouldn't say the CID characterized it that way," Phelps said. "In particular, one of the special agents I worked with did not agree with that. I don't remember his name, to be quite honest. I don't know that the Army did. I know that their ... safety investigation tended to convey that message. I was contacted by a number of people from the Army that certainly didn't believe it was simply a case of mistaken identity.
"I think -- at the point the CID got involved -- the ball was already rolling in one direction. Too much momentum to change, you know what I mean? I was laid up and not privy to a lot of that. I was a little bit incapacitated."
Phelps said he is sure in his own mind that Butler never saw any weapon in that bag.
"There has never been a shred of doubt in my mind," Phelps said. "He never took possession of the bag until he snatched it away and threw it. It was a continuous motion. There was no pause that would have allowed him to see in the bag. It was just, as I said on the stand, a single motion."
Butler -- and virtually everybody who has worked with him in law enforcement thinks he's teling the truth -- says otherwise. He said he saw the M4, thought he saw two machine guns, and feared for his life. Phelps has a different take.
"I think he got angry," he said. "I think he got angry, because Tallas wouldn't let him see in the bag. I think it was just a case of something spiraling out of control, and people do things they wouldn't normally do. I just think he let his emotions run wild."
'Keep Getting Up'
From the first day through his testimony at trial, Butler had said he found himself facing three suspicious men and discovered what, in one quick glance, he thought were two machine guns. At the time, he knew he was about to be shot and possibly killed, he has said from that day to this.
When Phelps and Tomeny were taking the course it was also a sort of final exam in SF training. Failure often meant the end of a soldier's Green Beret dreams and his being "recycled" to some other unit -- or it could mean he would have to start all over again.
This was a second go-round for Phelps. He'd escaped recycling but was having to take the "Q" course over.
"I did not make it through the course the first time," he said in a recent telephone interview. "I didn't fail and get 'recycled' -- I got into a fight with an instructor. We had a disagreement about how he was handling some guys who had actually failed, and I thought that that was my time to stand up. Apparently, it wasn't. Thankfully, one of the senior guys on the committee stepped in and realized what I had done was in the interest of being treated right."
The motto of Special Forces -- De Oppresso Liber -- means to free from an oppressor. Phelps still sees that as -- at heart -- what he was doing when he stood up to an instructor he thought was behaving oppressively.
"The guys that failed were being paraded and belittled by one of the instructors," he said. "I didn't agree with it. They had simply failed. It didn't make them lesser men. There are a lot of people who don't even try. It speaks to their character that they tried, even though they failed. A number of them had gotten hurt and were being put out of the course due to their injury. There was no shame: They hadn't failed a task. Some had, but these guys had not."
The result was that Phelps had to start all over, go through every tough step of the "Q" course from the start.
Phelps went off to war, then returned to the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg to try the tough course again.
"I went to Bosnia with Third Group for several months," he said. "As soon as I was able to come back, I came back again."
Phelps started over, working with new comrades in a practice Operation Detachment Alpha (ODA) team. In the days before Acorn Ridge, Phelps had had nothing to eat and very little sleep -- only a couple of hours at a time, he said in court.
And then, this time nearly to the finish line, came that morning at Acorn Ridge and two bullets tearing through his body.
"Oh yeah, then I got shot," he said, again laughing wryly. "That is correct."
EMTs came to help him once assisting officers from Robbins police and other agencies had secured the scene. There was a wait for SBI agents as they had to come from a distant post not used to working with Moore County, standard procedure where any law officer is a potential subject of inquiry.
Phelps was rushed to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital and treated. He said he had one thing on his mind while recovering at FirstHealth from the two bullet wounds: to graduate with his Special Forces class.
Phelps was determined to walk across the stage and collect his diploma. He managed that, standing up out of a wheelchair to walk on his own -- greeted by a standing ovation -- to grasp the hand of Maj. Gen. Gerry Boykin and accept his certificate of "Q" course completion.
His life had changed irrevocably. Before Acorn Ridge, Phelps' military operational specialty (MOS) was combat engineer. That is why the scenario that day involved scoping out a railroad bridge as a future demolition target.
Later, he remembered the feeling of lying helpless on his back in the church parking lot not knowing whether he would live or die. Phelps changed his MOS and added a second skill. He became an Special Forces medic and deployed twice in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan.
"I served as a medic and an engineer," Phelps said. "I've got both MOSs. It was certainly a task. I don't know if it helped me; it certainly did not hurt. I think -- and maybe I get this from my parents -- my personality has always been one that just 'keeps getting up' -- you know? You can knock me down, but I'll keep getting up."
'Wasn't About Money'
After the trial -- with the verdict to be determined by the civil standard of "the greater weight of the evidence" rather than beyond reasonable doubt as in criminal cases -- jurors said testimony by the driver made the difference.
"I think Mr. Leiber came across as just what he actually is, just a down-home, old salt-of-the-earth honest man," he said. "I've got a lot of respect for him. Especially -- living so close to Moore County -- I don't think testifying was the best thing he could do for his personal reputation or standing in the community. He still stepped up and did what he felt was right."
Phelps said the press often ask him, more than anything else, what he's "going to do now" -- and Phelps assumes they mean now that he has a little bit of money.
Actually, he doesn't, not yet. He won the verdict, but not the money. Moore County could seek an appeal. That will depend on a cost-based decision by insurers in the risk pool as to whether it makes economic sense to appeal the case and possibly seek a new trial.
"No, I certainly don't (have the money yet) and don't know that I will," Phelps said. "Frankly, I really don't care. It wasn't about the money."
He is out of the Army, but still works on military matters for a Defense Department contractor in Florida.
He doesn't talk about his work other than to say he can do it from about anywhere as long as he's available. Not to put too fine a point on it, what Phelps does now is give advice.
If he ever sees any payment, there's one thing he would like to do.
"If I could take this opportunity, this short little span of time, and somehow parlay it into recognition for the American service member on the job that they do overseas, stateside, the training they go through, all the hardships that they face," Phelps said.
He said he would like to do something for the Special Forces guys that are out there every day.
"I'd like to see them recognized for what they do," he said. "I'd like to see the American public quietly know."
What cause that might be will have to wait. He doesn't know what the next legal steps will be.
For now, Phelps is trying to come to grips with the awesome thought of being a father to his 10-year-old daughter, Morgan.
He said, with a chuckle: "I think it is a real tough task."
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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