Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott asked the State Guard to monitor a U.S. military training exercise dubbed “Jade Helm 15” amid Internet-fueled conspiracy theories that the war simulation is really part of an effort by President Obama to take over the state and force people to give up their guns.
The request came on April 28, a day after more than 200 people packed a meeting in rural Bastrop County and questioned a U.S. Army commander about whether the government was planning to confiscate their guns and implement martial law. Bastrop County Judge Paul Pape said “conspiracy theorists” and “fear mongers” had been in a frenzy.
“It’s a sad when people’s greatest fear is their own government,” Pape said. “Think about the ramification of that. If Americans go to sleep at night worrying whether their own government is going to sell them out before morning, it’d be hard to sleep.”
Suspicions about Jade Helm intensified on some conservative websites and social media after a map labeled Texas, Utah and parts of California as “hostile” for the purposes of the three-month training exercise that begins in July. Such war simulations aren’t unusual, though the Army has acknowledged that the size and scope of Jade Helm makes it unique.
Texas and six other states are hosting the exercises on public and private lands. The Army says the terrain and topography in the areas selected are ideal to replicate foreign combat zones.
“It is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed,” Abbott wrote. “By monitoring the operation on a continual basis, 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.”
Tea party groups such as InfoWars and the Oath Keepers are behind the frenzy.
While boosting his popularity with the fringe right, Abbott’s antics have drawn the scorn of many in his party. Former Republican state Rep. Todd Smith penned a letter to the governor, which stated in part:
“Let me apologize in advance that your letter pandering to idiots who believe that US Navy Seals and other US military personnel are somehow a threat to be watched has left me livid. As a 16 year member of the Texas House and a proud patriotic AMERICAN, I am terrified that I have to choose between the possibility that my Governor actually believes this stuff and the possibility that my Governor doesn’t have the backbone to standup to those who do. I’m not sure which is worse.”
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Mark Lastoria attempted in vain to calm down the conspiracy-theory crowd in Bastrop, telling them that the exercise will involve 1,200 soldiers and all four branches of the military, according to the Austin American-Statesman. He said people with a “personal agenda” about the exercise had been spreading misinformation.
Lastoria spoke for two hours, but some left the meeting still unconvinced.
Pape told The Associated Press that some came from as far as Houston and Dallas to attend the meeting. He said the county could reap as much as $150,000 in economic activity from the exercise, which in Bastrop is set to include 60 soldiers, two Humvees and a helicopter.
Bastrop County is home to Camp Swift, the largest base for the Texas National Guard, and Pape said most people likely won’t even notice.
“There’s been a lot of dust thrown in the air, a lot of haze,” Pape said. “Those who wanted to raise concerns on the one hand succeeded. They’ve raised a lot of attention about this. But the fact is the message is clear: Jade Helm is a well-designed and a well-constructed training operation.”
Associated Press Writer Eva Ruth Moravec contributed to this report.