by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
It was just supposed to be another military exercise. American Special Forces troops would practice carrying out covert operations at several locations in Texas.
Much of the upcoming exercise — known as Jade Helm 15 — will be on private land, and few people would have likely ever heard about it … had it not been for conspiracy theorists who spun it into a story of impending martial law.
Starting in July, the story goes, the Pentagon will start taking over Texas and opening up tunnels hidden under abandoned Walmarts, precipitating a Chinese invasion. Yes, that’s actually the claim.
Normally you can ignore this kind of thing. But as the theories circulated in late April, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor Jade Helm.
That’s when it blew up into a political shit-storm.
A lot of people were surprised the Texas State Guard is even a thing. A surge of stories confused it for the Texas National Guard — that’s a separate organization— and the running theme was that the state of Texas had lost its collective mind.
Former state Rep. Todd Smith, a Republican, called Abbot’s decision “pandering to idiots.” Chuck Norris got involved. The Pentagon worked to reassure Texans it wasn’t coming to take their civil liberties away. Former Gov. Rick Perry — a potential presidential candidate — subtly rebuked Abbott.
Why this story exploded is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s because crazy Texas stories, like Florida man, bring in traffic on the Internet. In fairness, I’ve succumbed to this temptation myself. Though calling in the State Guard was highly unusual.
In the conspiracy theorist press — which first widely publicized Jade Helm — the State Guard deployment was serious enough to suggest the exercise is suspicious after all. So instead of reassuring people, Abbott might have made it worse.
To be sure, the eight-week Jade Helm exercise is large for its type — 1,200 U.S. military service members will train in “unconventional warfare” in seven states.
It involves Navy SEALs, the Army’s Special Forces Command, the 82nd Airborne Division and Marines. You can read a SOCOM summary of the action here. The summary lists Texas as “hostile” territory — which piqued the conspiracy theorists’ interest.
But the Pentagon has a long and creative history with these kinds of exercises. In the late 1940s, the Army staged mock battles in Texas between U.S. soldiers and the Circle Trigonists — a fictional fascist army wearing Roman-style helmets. Later fake enemies included the Atropians and the People’s Democratic Republic of Krasnovia.
For Jade Helm, part of the exercise involves two Humvees and 60 soldiers training on private land in the town of Bastrop east of Austin.
In April, a town meeting with SOCOM members turned into a near revolt as residents accused one Army lieutenant colonel of lying about the exercise’s purpose.
A day later, Abbott ordered the State Guard to monitor the exercise. Cue a national freakout.
That’s all baffling enough. But what’s even weirder is that the State Guard doesn’t typically observe Special Forces exercises — as that’s not part of its core mission. We don’t know if the State Guard will even mobilize anyone.
“The Texas State Guard is NOT involved in any aspect of this exercise, other than to monitor the situation and provide updates on the progress and safety of the mission,” Maj. Gen. Gerald Betty — the organization’s commanding general — wrote in an April 30 announcement to State Guard members.
Betty didn’t rule out mobilizing guardsmen in the announcement, which we obtained through the Texas Public Information Act. “At this point you are asked to stay focused on our normal missions and be prepared to respond when called upon,” he added.
Abbott wrote earlier in May that “the State Guard will facilitate communications between my office and the commanders of the Operation to ensure that adequate measures are in place to protect Texans.”
Which makes sense — even if the decision doesn’t. A lot of the controversy comes over confusion about what the State Guard actually does.
For one, it’s not the same thing as the Texas National Guard — which is under the authority of the governor but is part of the U.S. military. Each state has its own National Guard forces, which the president can “federalize” with the consent of the respective states’ governors.
The Texas State Guard is not part of the U.S. military or the National Guard — and neither the Pentagon nor the White House have any authority over it. It’s not a combat organization and its members don’t carry weapons.
So what does it do? It’s often referred to as a state “militia,” but it’s perhaps more accurate to describe it as an auxiliary disaster-relief force under the authority of the governor. Its largest and most important mission is responding to hurricanes.
During 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Texas mobilized 950 State Guard troopers to manage shelters near the Louisiana border — and 1,100 troopers during Hurricane Rita later that year. In total, the State Guard has around 2,000 members with its headquarters in Austin.
The State Guard can assess damage, manage roadblocks on flooded roads or deploy search-and-rescue and medical units. But its main job is to take the pressure off other first responders by managing shelters, keeping tabs on evacuees with special needs — such as the elderly or people with disabilities — and handling communications.
It’s important work. But if the State Guard ever saw combat, America would have to be in serious trouble — as in a worse-case-scenario invasion or thermonuclear war. Even then, its troopers would likely be better served doing what they do already.
But monitoring commandos? It makes some sense — or at least, it’s feasible.
In addition to handling communication during disasters, the State Guard participates in the Military Auxiliary Radio System, a network of part-time high-frequency radio operators who’d spring into action if America’s communication grid were to break down or be destroyed.
In short, the State Guard directs communications between the U.S. military — such as the National Guard — and the governor during disasters. It’s not a huge leap to have them talk to SOCOM during Jade Helm.
It might even be good practice.
But is it necessary? For Abbott’s part, he insisted his decision was a matter of citizen concern and transparency. If the U.S. military is carrying out a major exercise on the ground, it’s understandable a state governor would want to know about it.
For Abbott’s critics, the decision amounted to throwing a bone to anti-government extremists. But if that’s true, Abbott failed big time. Instead, he further emboldened conspiracy theorists and spread paranoia about the exercise more widely.
Is there any good news? Well, some State Guardsmen might get a peek at a pretty cool Special Forces exercise.
Joseph Trevithick contributed research to this article.