Accidents will happen

To date, no civilian casualties have been reported in connection with urban-warfare training exercises in American cities. But there have been some close calls — many of them in North Carolina. And at least one death has resulted from Robin Sage, a guerrilla-warfare simulation that takes place in 14 counties surrounding Fort Bragg, the home of the U.S. Army Special Forces (popularly known as the Green Berets).

The little-known exercise, which is staged four times a year using a cadre of civilians as role-players, burst into the headlines in February 2002, when a Moore County sheriff’s deputy shot two soldiers following a roadside stop, killing one of them. The soldiers, who were in civilian garb, reportedly assumed that the law officer was part of the simulation, so they first tried to bribe him with fake money and then to disarm him. The deputy, however, said he was not aware of the Army exercise and was forced to defend himself.

In the aftermath of that incident, newspapers in the Robin Sage training area turned up previously unpublicized reports of numerous other scrapes and scares involving soldiers. In fact, just one week before, a soldier had fired blanks at a police officer during a traffic stop. Fortunately, the officer was familiar with Robin Sage (though he wasn’t participating in the exercise), and he was able to defuse the situation without any violence.

In the wake of the Moore County mix-up, the Army announced new measures to better inform both civilians and local law enforcement about Robin Sage exercises, but the potential for accidents remains. In October 2002, for example, four Special Forces trainees broke into the home of an elderly Montgomery County couple, held them at gunpoint and barked commands at them in Spanish — until the soldiers realized they’d targeted the wrong home.

And in February 2005, the latest round of Robin Sage produced two scares in Asheboro, N.C. In the first incident, employees at a local business called the police to report an apparent armed kidnapping — which turned out to be part of the exercise. In the second, two public schools went into lockdown for almost half an hour after staff members spotted armed men near the schools. The men were later identified by Army officials as Robin Sage trainees who had evidently not followed their instructions — which were to stay out of sight.

— Jon Elliston

About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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