Army's Reality Game Takes a Deadly Turn

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saturday afternoon was chilly and windy--too cold, Deputy Randall Butler later told colleagues, for anyone to be riding around in the back of a pickup truck.

So the second time the Moore County sheriff's deputy saw the green open-bed truck just outside the limits of this tiny town, he pulled over the driver and two passengers--each unshaven and wearing blue jeans and flannel shirts.

Within minutes Butler fired, fearing for his life, after the passengers moved to attack him, one shouting to the other: "Shoot him! Get the gun! Shoot him! He's got a gun!" One man was killed and another seriously injured.

What Butler did not know--what he had little way of knowing--was that he had killed 1st Lt. Tallas Tomeny and wounded Sgt. Stephen Phelps. They thought they were playing the war game known as "Robin Sage," part of their intensive final examination to earn the coveted Green Beret of the U.S. Army's Special Forces. Their driver, Charles Leiber, a civilian volunteer who had been placed in the squad car for questioning before the shooting, was unharmed.

To a degree, the Army conceded such an incident may have been more likely in light of the high alert that police everywhere have been on since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At the same time, the Army considers such training exercises vital preparation for conflicts such as Afghanistan.

Moore County Dist. Atty. Garland N. Yates said no charges would be brought against anyone. He noted that Butler had "absolutely no knowledge" that the men were in a training exercise and the soldiers believed Butler was playing a role in the war game.

The episode, called a "fatal misunderstanding" by Army officials at a news conference Tuesday at Ft. Bragg, highlighted a breakdown in communication between the military and local law enforcement officials. The failure to communicate appeared deeper when Robbins' Police Chief D.L. Brown said Tuesday afternoon that one of his officers had a similar encounter a week earlier with troops participating in the same 19-day training exercise.

In that incident, just a few miles from the fatal shooting, Officer J.D. Garner pulled over a truck towing a trailer with a canvas cover. At least one soldier thought Garner was taking part in the war game and fired on him using blank ammunition. Garner, a former Robin Sage volunteer, realized what was happening and held his fire.

In this traffic stop, the soldiers in the back of the covered trailer were in uniform. Brown said Garner informed military instructors immediately. But the Moore County Sheriff's Department said they were not told of the potentially dangerous encounter until the day after their officer shot and killed Tomeny, 31.

Army officials said that in the past, unplanned events, particularly with law enforcement officials familiar with Robin Sage, were viewed as a bonus to the realism of the exercise.

But Army officials said unlike other local law enforcement agencies, the Moore County Sheriff's Department had never participated in these games. Lane Carter, chief deputy in the department, said his officers were aware that troops trained in the area but had no idea the exercises would involve soldiers wearing civilian clothes in civilian vehicles.

The Army moved immediately to prevent future misunderstandings, ordering all Green Beret candidates to be in uniform throughout the exercise and switching from phone and mail notification of local law enforcement to face-to-face meetings.

They also discontinued the long-standing use of training activities that involved uniformed local law enforcement officials role-playing with soldiers--a tactic that had been used as recently as last week.

But the Army said it would not cancel or cut back the current Robin Sage training exercise, which still has 199 prospective Green Berets out in the field through Saturday.

"This exercise is unique within the Army not only in its setup and organization but in the fact that it has been consistently validated by operational success on the part of special operations soldiers around the world," said Col. Charles A. King, commander of the 1st Special Warfare Training Group.

The training is conducted among civilians in parts of 10 central North Carolina counties that make up nearly 4,500 square miles. King said there was no way the exercises could be replicated within the borders of Ft. Bragg. The move, he said, might eliminate confusion between role-playing and reality but would also greatly limit the test of a soldier's ability to react.

Army officials said civilians have always been used to stage the Robin Sage training. King noted that many of the 100 volunteers are second- and even third-generation participants who are acting out of "patriotism" and are not paid for their work.

Civilians are critical to realistic training, Army officials say, since dealing with nonmilitary people mimics the skills soldiers will need in the field.

King drew parallels between the work done during Robin Sage and work that was done in Afghanistan.

Pineland, he noted at Tuesday's news conference, is a land occupied by an illegally installed government, backed by invaders from the north. The war game goal of the U.S., as played out in training, is to liberate Pineland from the oppressors.

The special operations forces must meet up with guerrillas fighting within Pineland to help train and supply their efforts. They must navigate a world in which there are enemy troops abetted by law enforcement officials. In addition, they face three types of civilians: those working with them, those working against them and a majority who are neutral.

It is an elaborate, multilayered game designed to test the adaptability of troops in the field, with only about 30% of soldiers who enter Special Forces training reaching this final test.

Tomeny and Phelps were 12 days into the exercise when the incident took place. Their group, one of 15 detachments operating separately throughout the whole of Pineland, already had infiltrated enemy ground, made contact with guerrillas, set up a drop zone for supplies and located and set up the rescue for a downed pilot.

Saturday, King noted, was to have been a quiet day.

The assignment seemed simple. The two men were sent on a reconnaissance mission to scope out a railroad bridge east of Robbins. At noon they left their base camp to meet up with Leiber, the civilian driver.

After checking out the bridge, the three men drove up and down Route 705 near the town of 1,200 to familiarize themselves with the area.

It was there that Butler observed the truck, and occupants he did not recognize, twice in the same area within an hour.

Local law enforcement and Army officials agree what happened next was a case of mistaken identity by both sides. As a result, safety measures in place--which called for the soldiers to be passive when reality intruded on the game--did not kick in.

In the parking lot of a red-bricked and white-steepled church, Butler approached the truck driven by Leiber, who lives about 20 minutes from Robbins in an adjacent county. Butler told investigators he believed Leiber was trying to hide something because he saw him with a bag and then saw him try to shove the bag underneath his legs.

Leiber told him they were trying to hire migrant workers. That rang false to Butler because of the time of year.

He then put Leiber in the back of his patrol car before returning to talk to the Tomeny and Phelps. In the bag he had previously spotted, Butler believed he saw two Army rifles--although military officials later said it was one disassembled M-4 carbine with a muzzle to prevent live fire.

Tomeny approached Butler. The deputy sprayed him with pepper Mace. Butler told investigators that he then asked the men to show him their hands, but they did not. Phelps, he said, went for the bag as Tomeny urged him to get a gun. At that point Butler began shooting.

His frantic call for help once the two men were down was released Monday and played by local television and radio stations.

King said that while Moore County sheriff's officials were aware of the training exercise, no one from the Army had notified them of the Saturday reconnaissance mission in their jurisdiction "because there was nothing to coordinate."

The Robin Sage exercise, half a century old, is now conducted four times a year. In August, shortly before the last Robin Sage, Army officials asked local media to warn civilians that gunfire and strange activity they might come across was really an "unconventional warfare training scenario."

"Safety is our No. 1 priority," the Army said then. It added that "extensive planning" had been done with local officials to minimize everyone's risk. This year the Army issued no such warning.

Butler, who has been out on administrative leave with pay since Saturday, was expected to come back to work today. Phelps, 27, was listed in fair condition at a local hospital.

Many residents throughout the fictional "Pineland" say that over the 50 years the Army has been training here, they have grown accustomed to gunfire and the fireworks of practice warfare.

Others said they were shocked by the shooting. "I've lived here all my life and I always knew the military trained in this area, but I didn't know they did this kind of training," said Ann Moore, who works for the town of Robbins as a zoning administrator.

But in a region with a long and warm relationship with the military, no one said the training should stop.

Moore County's Carter asked for the final word at Tuesday's news conference.

"I'd just like to say that the Moore County Sheriff's Department is in full support of our military training within the borders of Moore County," he said. "And we will work with them closely in the future to make sure a tragic event like this does not occur."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°