No military equipment or personnel were visible. No tanks were rumbling past the beige-metal community center on Main Street next door to the fire station here, the scene of 4-H Club meetings and family reunions. But that did not mean that people were not on the alert.
“I’ve been looking,” said Dr. Jack Campbell, 61, who was picking up his mail at the post office.
Dr. Campbell said that he had concerns about the exercise, and that he purchased extra ammunition for the weapons he kept in his home. “Just in case,” added Dr. Campbell, an emergency physician in San Angelo, Tex., 20 miles away. “People are just vigilant. Not vigilantes, but vigilant. They don’t want to be caught off guard.”
Another resident said a friend of his, a Vietnam veteran, started burying some of his firearms to hide them. Members of the Christoval Volunteer Fire Department, which owns the community center, signed an agreement with military officials stating — oddly to some, suspiciously to others — that the Army would pay for any damage to the building after it used it.
Sindy Miller, who runs a hair salon on Main Street, said fear of a military takeover had been the talk of Christoval.
“They’re worried that they’re going to come in and take their firearms away,” Ms. Miller said. “Martial law, basically. I try not to listen to all these conspiracy-theory-type people. All they’re worried about is their beer and their guns.”
Jade Helm 15 is an eight-week exercise that has generated paranoia for months fueled by conservative bloggers and Internet postings. It began Wednesday in Texas and six other states: Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Utah.
Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and other Special Operations troops will be conducting drills on private property, military bases and at some public facilities. According to military documents, hundreds of service members will participate in the operation in Texas, in more than a dozen mostly small towns and rural counties.
“The public can expect little disruption in their day-to-day activities since much of the exercise will be conducted in remote areas,” the organizer of the exercise, the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., said in a statement Monday.
But in a larger sense, Jade Helm 15 has already caused disruptions, particularly in Texas.
On the orders of Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas State Guard will monitor Jade Helm 15 from Camp Mabry in Austin, the state capital. So will at least one national group of unofficial monitors and protesters that calls itself Counter Jade Helm. It plans to have teams of volunteers follow Army vehicles and post their locations on its website.
Dr. Campbell and others said much of the paranoia over Jade Helm 15 was the outgrowth of the anti-Obama sentiment that is widespread in Texas. Residents supported the governor’s decision to have the state monitor the military’s activities. “I think there’s an overall distrust of the government now,” Dr. Campbell said. “If we had a government that we felt had our backs, I don’t think anybody would give it the time of day.”
Training exercises off base involving role-playing are not new. But the size and scope of Jade Helm 15 make it unusual.
The military exercise will train Special Operations troops in what Army planners call “unconventional warfare.” The exercise is being conducted in rural Texas because the military needed “large areas of undeveloped land with low population densities with access to towns,” and wanted soldiers to adapt to unfamiliar terrain as well as social and economic conditions, according to Army documents.
Local officials who have been briefed on the exercise say it is modeled after the French resistance to Nazi occupation during World War II. It calls for some military personnel to play the role of the occupiers and for others to work undetected as part of the resistance. Military maps show Texas and Utah as “hostile,” other states as “permissive,” and still others as uncertain but leaning hostile or friendly.
According to some right-wing bloggers and activists, the exercise is part of a secret plot by the Obama administration to impose martial law, confiscate firearms, invade red-state Texas or prepare for instituting “total population control.” A report on Infowars, a website operated by Alex Jones, a libertarian-leaning talk radio host from Texas, suggested the name Helm was an acronym for Homeland Eradication of Local Militants.
The level of realism sought by Army planners and uncertainty about whether troops will try to blend in with civilians during the exercise have heightened the curiosity and unease among some Texans. The military has told local officials that fire extinguishers will be at each training site and that some personnel may carry weapons loaded with blank ammunition or paintball-like training cartridges. According to a PowerPoint presentation prepared by the military for Texas officials, some Jade Helm 15 participants “may conduct suspicious activities” as part of their training and others “will be wearing civilian attire and driving civilian vehicles.”
Residents and local officials — even those who are supportive of Jade Helm — said Army organizers exacerbated the paranoia by releasing few details about the operation and by putting realistic war game activities in civilian areas, no matter how remote. Army coordinators said in statements that they had kept the state and local authorities updated and informed. Governor Abbott will receive regular updates from the Texas State Guard as the exercise proceeds, but a spokesman for him said he had no concerns about it. “The Special Operations Command has assured Texas that this exercise poses no risk to anyone, and the governor sees no reason to worry or doubt them,” said the spokesman, John Wittman.
In Christoval, an unincorporated town of about 500, Scott Degenaer, 53, smoked a cigarillo outside his home and said he was not sure what to think about Jade Helm 15. But he had suspicions. Two flags flapped in the breeze on his porch: an American flag and a Confederate battle flag. Signs on his house and in the yard read, “Pray for America” and “Warning: The door you are about to break down is locked for your protection!”
Mr. Degenaer, a Navy veteran, said that he saw a Black Hawk helicopter flying over Christoval on Sunday and that he understood why some people would bury firearms.
“With Obama being in there,” he said, “with the way he’s already stomped all over the Constitution, pushing his presidential authority to the max, it would only be just the stroke of a pen for him to do away with that. This man is just total anti-U. S.”
Throughout the interview, Mr. Degenaer was skeptical whether the reporter and photographer who spoke with him were members of the news media and wondered if they were part of Jade Helm 15. “Spec Ops grows beards,” he said, referring to the photographer’s facial hair. “Y’all got a military ID?”
Not everyone here is as suspicious as Mr. Degenaer. Sylvia Pate, who owns a scenic river retreat and bed-and-breakfast, said those who had fears about the military exercise were in the minority. “I think the predominant opinion is that Jade Helm is necessary, and it is not a politically driven initiative, and it’s just not a significant enough issue to worry about,” said Ms. Pate, a former corporate executive in Dallas.
While much of the attention on Jade Helm 15 has focused on conspiracy theories, Army planners have spent months quietly persuading private property owners and small-town leaders to welcome them to their communities. Many local officials and ranchers have granted troops access to their land and buildings, without asking for compensation.
In the West Texas town of Eldorado, the longtime mayor, John Nikolauk, said he was allowing the troops to use his ranch.
“We’re a very patriotic part of the country and we think it’s great,” said Mr. Nikolauk, a former pilot for the United States Air Force.
Mr. Nikolauk and other local officials said they considered the Internet rumors about Jade Helm 15 far-fetched.
“If the government has an idea they can come in and take over, and take guns away, the stupidest place they could come is West Texas,” said Bill Ford, a commissioner in Tom Green County whose district includes Christoval. “There’s more guns and ammo here and more people willing to use them than any combat area they’ve fought in.”