Special Forces soldiers drop plan to 'infiltrate' Utah

Published March 8, 2013 5:52 pm

Lack of funds • Some residents had suspicions about the Special Forces' role-playing exercise.
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Army Special Forces soldiers will not "infiltrate" Utah communities this summer — a plan that had riled residents suspicious of the government's motives.

Green Berets had planned to parachute into several central Utah counties, cross mountains and work with Utahns who would be playing roles as resisters to an enemy regime.

The Defense Department wants the soldiers to have fresh training in skills at the heart of Special Forces' mission, such as covertly cultivating relationships with regular citizens and training resistance forces trying to liberate themselves from oppressive governments, said Col. Robert Dunton, a special projects officer for the Utah National Guard who was helping organize the exercise.

The Special Operations Command has designated Utah, with its desert and mountain geography as well as a culture dominated by a religious faith, as a good place for such training.

"Every place we go [to train] is a different culture… a different mentality throws them off and requires [soldiers] to adapt," said Staff Sgt. Ryan Sabin, a spokesman for the 10th Special Forces.

But budget tightening and other factors have put the kibosh on the training.

Paul Weddle, a retired Green Beret contracted to help the Army set up the exercise in Sanpete, Sevier, Emery and Carbon counties, said he got news late Thursday it has been canceled.

The news was welcomed by some who had resisted the exercise.

"I'm relieved," said Alan Braithwaite of Manti. "I like to see them get trained; I just didn't want them coming here and scaring people and that's what it was doing."

Braithwaite was the leader of a sizable group that protested Manti's welcoming of the Special Forces exercise last fall. Fifteen people spoke at a Manti City Council meeting the day after President Barack Obama was re-elected, urging the council to rescind the welcome.

They said they feared the exercise was part of a government plan to impose martial law, that military spies were already in the community and that mentally unstable soldiers would hurt residents.

Braithwaite and two other opponents later met with exercise planners, including Weddle, and Manti Mayor Natasha Madsen.

Braithwaite, a former Army Guardsman and Reservist, said he trusted Weddle and the Special Forces, but feared the government could alter the exercise or bring in foreign soldiers for ostensible training.

"If they're not Americans we don't want them here," he said.

Madsen, the Manti mayor, said she was a bit disappointed. "But I totally understand with this situation right now with the budget. … This is something that can be put off for perhaps another year," she said.

"There's a chance that it may be rescheduled for next year but that remains to be determined," said Weddle, the U.S. Special Operations Command Southwest Irregular Warfare coordinator in Utah. Besides the budget, Army manpower decisions played a role, he said.

Elsewhere in central Utah, residents were unhappy but not surprised by the exercise cancellation.

"It would have been fun to have them here," said Mike Turner, a businessman and city councilman in Richfield. "I think everybody involved will be disappointed."

The exercise, dubbed Robin Sage, has been used to train Special Forces soldiers in North Carolina for decades, Weddle said. The Utah training was supposed to help soldiers of the 4th battalion of the 10th Special Forces, based at Fort Carson in Colo., refresh skills in unconventional warfare.

"Our combat skills are right up where they need to be because we've been doing combat for 12 years," Weddle said.

As Weddle and Dunton met with city, county and law enforcement leaders throughout central Utah last fall, they likened the training to that needed by Allied forces who worked with French resistance fighters in World War II.

By enlisting citizens — such as owners of lumberyards or LDS stake presidents — to play roles paralleling their real roles in the community, the Army can save money. Hiring role players to go to the Utah National Guard's Camp Williams for two weeks would be much pricier.

Under the exercise plan, three teams of 12 soldiers in plain clothes would spend two weeks doing missions with up to 30 role players, including other soldiers, mostly at night in Sanpete and Sevier counties and in the Emery-Carbon county area.

Teams also had planned to drop briefly into Juab and Utah counties, and two of the teams were going to finish the exercise in Grand County.

The Special Forces teams would depend on Utah role-players for all their food, beds, transportation and other supplies.

Weddle and Dunton assured government leaders that no live ammunition would be used — except on gun ranges — and that no private property would be crossed without permission.

Weddle said Utah will remain a good candidate for future training. "This is not a one-time shot, lost to Utah," Weddle said. "There will be other opportunities."

kmoulton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @Kristen Moulton