An Army role-playing game that insists in realism turns deadly
ELDORADO, N.C. (AP) — The Special Forces troops are led blindfolded into a forest cave. Their eyes are uncovered, and they see a flickering candle jutting from a human skull.
Standing before them is Col. Tomcat, the deposed ruler of wartorn Pineland. The troops have been told he is a mean alcoholic, a soldier who takes no prisoners. He is the man they have been sent in to restore to power.
But “Pineland” is really a swath of North Carolina backwoods, and some of the forces Tomcat and his men will face are just local farmers, librarians and forklift operators playing assigned roles.
The game, called Robin Sage, is the 19-day final exam standing between Army soldiers and the coveted green beret. The Army strives mightily for realism, with soldiers trained to treat every person they encounter as part of the maneuver.
And that is apparently what got a soldier killed last weekend. The soldier was shot to death after tangling with a deputy sheriff who apparently did not realize it was all a game.
“Everybody was taking it seriously,” says the colonel, aka Tommie Cato, a former Marine and one of the soldiers’ trainers. “It was supposed to have been.”
Moore County Deputy Randall Butler was patrolling a country road Saturday when he spotted a pickup truck with three men in it. All three were wearing civilian clothes; Butler was suspicious because one of the men was riding in the truck bed in 40-degree weather.
Butler pulled the truck over and noticed a duffel bag with a disassembled M-4 rifle inside. When one of the three men in the truck came at him, Butler tried pepper spray. When the attack continued, Butler opened fire.
First Lt. Tallas Tomeny was killed. Sgt. Stephen Phelps is listed in fair condition. The civilian driver, who has not been identified, was unharmed.
Local and Army officials call it a tragic breakdown in communications and say no charges will be filed. Military officials from Fort Bragg say they did not notify Moore County officials of the exercise because they figured they would not be involved.
But locals are having a hard time understanding how the deputy couldn’t have known the exercise was going on — and why the soldiers let things get so out of hand.
In “Pineland,” the 4,500-square-mile staging area that covers much of eastern North Carolina’s rural sandhills, Confederate flags compete with American ones and camouflage seems the unofficial native dress. It is not uncommon to round a curve and find men with M-16s blocking a bridge.
Area police have been known to take part in the Green Beret training exercise, setting up roadblocks so commandos can stage running gun battles and “blow up” targets. Farmers open their fields and woods to the maneuvers; some even offer their homes as “safe houses” or targets.
Melinda Cagle, who owns a general store where officers do a lot of their planning, says she is informed by Fort Bragg months in advance of an exercise.
Locals have become almost inured to the sound of automatic weapons fire and small explosions from nearby ridges. Raymond Lucas, 85, did not even flinch when a plainclothes soldier walked out of the woods and asked if he could hide out in his basement for an hour or so.
“We fed him his supper,” Lucas says nonchalantly.
Bruce Reeves remembers doing reconnaissance work for the soldiers as a teen-ager, scouting dams and other “targets” on his four-wheeler. The soldiers would pay $10, $15, $25 for locals to ferry them around; a friend once traded the men some deer meat for a bayonet.
“They called us indigenous troops,” says Reeves, 31.
But the soldiers also know that every local contact is a potential trap.
Once, Cato had his daughter and a girlfriend dress in shorts and stand by the side of a road he knew the soldiers would be using. Cato and his troops had pushed the girls’ car into a ditch and were hoping the opposing force would take the bait.
“We confiscated everything and drove off and left them,” says Cato, who has played the role of area commander for 11 years.
Such a lapse, or a combination of them, on the part of a trainee can lead to failing the exercise and being forced to take it again.
Retired Green Beret Master Sgt. Thomas Broken Bear Squier went through Robin Sage in 1977 and has since taken part in two dozen exercises as an instructor.
As realistic as things could seem sometimes, Squier says a stark line was drawn at causing actual physical injury. Soldiers received in-depth training on how to know things were out of control, he says, and pepper spray in the face should have been a warning to the soldiers that the line had been crossed.
“I would have put my hands on my head and told him, ‘Look, let’s stop right here,”‘ says Squier, a veterans services officer. “They had to realize that he was a real deputy.”
In all the years he took part in Robin Sage, Squier says, the worst incidents were honor code violations: wives trying to sneak food to their husbands, soldiers stealing food off people’s porches or trying to bum a hot shower and warm bed for the night.
For now, the training will continue to its conclusion this weekend. But in the future, soldiers in Robin Sage exercises will not wear civilian clothes, and civilian law officers will not take part in role-playing exercises.
Also, military officials will have face-to-face meetings with local law enforcement in areas where training is going to occur. An Army internal investigation of last weekend’s shooting could suggest more changes, officials say.
At the country store down in Eldorado, Reeves can already imagine the clamor to end the exercises. He hopes it doesn’t come to that: He and others take pride in knowing that they helped prepare some of the soldiers who are fighting terrorism in Afghanistan.
“This is real important for these guys. It’s important to all of us, actually,” he says. “Because they’re the ones going out there and putting themselves in harm’s way, and it’s pretty serious business if you ask me. I took it serious.”