Bastrop News

Military plans ‘attacked’ by skeptics

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A planned U.S. Army Special Operations Command exercise this summer for Bastrop County ran into a swarm of bees Monday morning during a presentation at the Bastrop County Courthouse.

Lt. Colonel Mark Lastoria, an information officer for SOC, told a packed courtroom of the Commissioners Court that the planned training for “Jade Helm 15” would involve 60 Special Operations troops in training and their support, operating almost exclusively on private land, and one likely nighttime helicopter flight.

Lastoria maintained his composure after comments that ranged from inquisitive to questioning his truthfulness. On his uniform he wore an Airborne and unit patch on his left shoulder and an 82nd Airborne Division patch on his right shoulder (designating previous service in that unit), in addition to combat infantry, master parachutist (65 jumps) and combat-helicopter patches on his left chest.

Lastoria – and the U.S. Government – were called deceptive and the equivalent of “out to get our guns” by several audience members. One audience member declared, after a portion of Lastoria’s talk, “I don’t believe a single word he just said.” A second audience member added, “These two men can’t be trusted,” apparently referring to Lastoria and to a man in civilian clothes who help Lastoria during his presentation with information about the overall training exercise. A third audience member asked if forces from the Islamic State would be brought to Texas. Several of the speakers were from outside Bastrop County. Many audience members hooted when they didn’t seem to agree with some of Lastoria’s statements.

Lastoria was hosted by the Bastrop County Commissioners Court. Judge Paul Pape kept the proceedings moving along, allowing audience members some leeway when they did not have an immediate question – but he cut off several speakers in the process of making lengthy statements by telling them to ask their question. At one point a sign was hoisted that read, “Don’t Train on Me,” “Keep America Free” and “No Gestapo in Bastrop.”

Some other questions or comments included: “Is this (preparation) for World War III?” and “What would you do if ordered to confiscate (citizens’) guns by the U.S. government?” Lastoria answered a simple “No” to the first question, and that confiscating guns was not part of the exercise. “We’re not doing any type of law enforcement,” he added. When Lastoria was asked if at “any point” martial law (temporary military rule imposed upon a civilian population) would be declared, he responded, “No – this has nothing to do with Martial Law.”

Lastoria said the exercise in Bastrop County would maintain a small “people footprint…with 60 soldiers, period” – including “support personnel or those undergoing the actual training.” He said trainees “will stay on private land” but that some of the training exercises’ “role players” would likely stay in hotels. (Role players are often the “aggressor forces” that trainees encounter during maneuvers.) Also, the troops will only be outside the private property when transported between their training areas.

Lastoria said Bastrop County was one of approximately a dozen Texas counties that will be involved in the training – from mid-July to mid-September – and that Bastrop County was chosen because it fit the “rural terrain” aspect that the Army was looking for. He said the Army purposely chose to conduct the training off of bases, in order to challenge soldiers with unfamiliar terrain. He said the training will involve 1,200 soldiers overall, including in other states: Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, southern California.

Lastoria said too much was being made of the exercise on the Internet. This seemed to echo a headline on the website of the Washington Post: “Why Operation Jade Helm 15 is freaking out the Internet – and why it shouldn’t be.” When Pape wanted to reinforce that there will be “no scenario” where soldiers “are running through grandma’s backyard at night in Smithville,” Lastoria said, “No.” Lastoria said the soldiers would use blank ammunition and there might be one nighttime helicopter used. “There’s very little noise associated” with the training exercise and that it would be in “remote areas.”

Bastrop resident Sue Long questioned Lastoria on how the landowners’ property came to be selected for training. Lastoria said it was by “word of mouth” usually involving military veterans who served basically as go-betweens – aware of the military’s interest in an appropriate training area and the veterans knowing/contacting landowners that might be interested. He added that, “No one’s getting paid – they volunteered (their) land” and he complimented the landowners as patriotic citizens. He said “up to 15” Bastrop County landowners’ properties were involved.

At one point, Lastoria used his two hands to grab hold of the “U.S. Army” insignia on the left side of chest and said with emphasis, “This institution right here has been with you for over 200 years.”

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