In Texas, Jade Helm begins with a whimper
BASTROP, Texas — For four months, this pretty town along the Colorado River has been ground zero for rumors of a sweeping federal plot to disarm and round up American citizens.
But there was little evidence of continued anxiety over the military training exercise known as Jade Helm 15 as the operation got underway Wednesday.
“I just think it’s a bunch of hooey. All it takes is one person to get on the Internet and say something,” said Bud Sinclair, a retiree who sat drinking iced tea on the patio of a roadside restaurant along FM 1440 just outside of town.
The operation that military officials describe as a routine training exercise — and conspiracy theorists warned is a prelude to martial law and the wide-scale round-up of citizens, who would perhaps be warehoused in mysteriously closed Wal-Marts around the state —began in a dozen Texas counties and across the Southwest. It will continue through the summer.
It will involve 1,200 service members distributed across locations throughout several states. Some training is reportedly taking place on private land near Camp Swift, a former army base built during World War II now owned by the Texas National Guard about eight miles from downtown Bastrop.
Fears over Jade Helm’s launch reached a boiling point in April at a meeting of the Bastrop County Commissioners Court when concerned citizens peppered a military spokesman with questions about the operation.
Shortly after the Bastrop meeting, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on the exercise to ensure Texans' "safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.” After Abbott’s directive, which drew bipartisan criticism, hysteria over the possible military takeover exploded into the international spotlight. According to recent reports, the Texas state guard will not be monitoring the operation from the field, but from Austin.
A group called Counter Jade Helm has also mobilized to serve as a watchdog, dispatching members to various sites of the operation and soliciting any information locals may have on how the exercise is going in their communities.
At the same time, it has been careful to distance itself from the seedier elements of the Jade Helm furor, branding itself as an effort to help the military's efforts, not thwart them.
"CJH is not about conspiracy theories," the group's website reads. "This exercise is not about the what-ifs of our government."
A call to Pete Lanteri, one of the group’s leaders, was not returned.
On Wednesday, during an afternoon visit to the Camp Swift installation, the echoes of gunfire could be heard in the distance. But there were no obvious civilian monitors stationed there — except for several TV news trucks.
Asked about the start of the military exercise at the restaurant near town, Bastrop resident James Bradshaw said he wasn’t worried.
“If I see them in my backyard they’ll be some serious concern,” he said. “But so far I haven’t seen much of them. I thought there was going to be a bunch of helicopters flying around.”
Bradshaw scoffed at claims that Jade Helm was cover for a federal takeover.
"I’m anti-Obama, but I don’t think they are coming to take our guns away,” said Bradshaw, sitting at the table with Sinclair. "I’m a whole lot more worried about the U.N. coming in and taking over the Alamo than I am about the federal government coming in and taking my guns away.”
In a barbershop a few blocks away from the Bastrop County Courthouse, Vicki McMillan was not quite as dismissive.
News of the operation worried her at first, McMillan said, but she grew more comfortable after learning more about it and talking to friends in the military.
“I’m trusting it to be what they say it is,” she said, who added that she had yet to see a single military vehicle Wednesday. “The way they described it, it was like going to be descending down on the town, all this militant stuff, but I haven’t seen hide nor hair of anybody.”
Morgan Smith was an editorial intern and columnist at Slate, in Washington D.C., before moving to Austin to enter law school at the University of Texas in 2008. (She has put her degree on hold to join the Tribune’s staff.) A native of San Antonio, she has a B.A. in English from Wellesley College.