Robin Sage Training Exercise Cranks Up Sept. 11
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
A secret army will invade Moore County later this month.
These soldiers will be working with "collaborating citizens to overthrow the government in power," the Army said. But it is an act, a game - but the reason is as real as life and death.
"This fall, Special Forces candidates are once again on their way to help guerilla forces liberate Pineland, the fictional country overlapping 15 different North Carolina counties," the Army's Special Operations Command (USASOC) said Monday in a press release. "The Special Forces candidates are students in the Special Forces Qualification Course at Fort Bragg."
Starting Saturday, Sept. 11, more than 100 of these students will begin their final training exercise. It's called "Robin Sage." In years past it was known as "Gobbler's Woods" and other names.
The idea of using volunteer role-players in an imaginary land to give future Green Berets one last chance to play war under realistic conditions before IEDs (improvised explosive devices) are real goes back more than half a century, according to the Army.
In the 1950s, troops from Fort Bragg, pretending to be the forces of a foreign army, captured Southern Pines, landing on the school roof, stopping cars at random on May Street, which was then the main U.S. 1 route between New York and Miami.
Behind the scenes, training soldiers of what would become Special Forces were working out resistance scenarios. The exercise has grown along with the need for unconventional warfare, and the number of classes taking part has expanded from four to eight sessions a year.
It is the final course for these soldiers before they graduate and move to an assignment with one of America's Special Forces groups. The exercise will run for two weeks, ending Sept. 23, the Army said.
"Robin Sage is the U.S. military's premiere unconventional warfare exercise and the final test of over a year's worth of training for aspiring Special Forces Soldiers," USASOC said. "This exercise prepares future operators to lead and train indigenous forces by teaching guerrillas to communicate, move, fight and provide medical aid while helping to liberate a country by tactical force."
Ordinary residents are the pretend citizens of a nation that exists only in illusion - a place USASOC calls the "notional country of Pineland." It encompasses 15 counties in North Carolina, including Alamance, Anson, Cabarrus, Chatham, Davidson, Guilford, Hoke, Montgomery, Randolph, Richmond, Rowan, Scotland, Stanly, Union and Moore counties.
Over the two weeks of the exercise, Special Forces candidates not only conduct missions, but also live, eat and sleep in these areas. At points during the 14 days, the exercise clock makes jumps, resetting so that missions simulate those they would conduct after, for example, six months "in country" or after a year working with Pineland resistance fighters.
The Army made a number of changes in the way USASOC runs Robin Sage after two soldiers were shot in a confrontation with a Moore County sheriff's deputy. One died, while the other went on to complete training and serve a number of deployments in the Middle East. Attorneys reached an out-of-court settlement in that soldier's lawsuit against Moore County and the deputy, but the deputy's own suit against the Army is still pending in federal court.
Since then, whenever student soldiers wear civilian clothes - a necessary part of training to work incognito with guerilla forces - they must still display identifying marks.
Law enforcement officers are now trained to recognize the red placards on vehicles used in the exercise and other tags as a safety measure.
All Robin Sage movements and events have been coordinated with public safety officials throughout and within towns and counties hosting the training, the Army said.
"Residents may hear blank gunfire and see occasional flares," USASOC said. "Controls are in place to ensure there is no risk to persons or property. Residents with concerns should contact local law enforcement officials, who will immediately contact exercise control officials."
Because these safety concerns have such importance, USASOC has implemented the following precautionary measures:
n Formal written notification to the chiefs of law enforcement agencies in the affected counties, with a follow-up visit from a unit representative.
n All civilian and nonstudent military participants are briefed on procedures to follow if there is contact with law enforcement officials.
n Students will only wear civilian clothes if the situation warrants, as determined by the instructors, and will wear a distinctive armband. Personnel role-playing as Pineland law enforcement officers wear distinctive hats and armbands, as well.
n Training areas and vehicles used during exercises are clearly labeled.
About 200 military service members from units across Fort Bragg will support the exercise. These military members will play roles both as realistic opposing forces and as guerrilla freedom fighters, known as the Pineland resistance movement.
"These troops play a critical role in the training the students will encounter in the country of Pineland," the Army said.
One of the most important features over the years has been the use of ordinary Americans pretending to be Pinelanders. To add realism to the training, civilian volunteers throughout the state act as role-players.
"Participation by these volunteers is crucial to the success of this training, and past trainees attest to the realism they add to the exercise," USASOC said. "We appreciate the support and consideration the citizens of North Carolina extend to the soldiers participating in the exercise and thank them for their understanding of any inconveniences the training may cause."
Questions concerning the exercise should be referred to the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School Public Affairs Office at (910) 396-9394, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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