Some Asheville residents felt they were living in a war zone one recent evening, as explosions and gunfire echoed through downtown for several hours. Beginning around 10:30 p.m. on Aug. 19, three military helicopters -- a hulking Black Hawk and two smaller MH-6 Little Birds -- circled the city, touching down atop the Buncombe County Courthouse to drop off commandos. With little to no warning of the populace, Asheville had hosted a military training exercise.
And city residents weren't the only ones caught off guard by the mock assault: Key local officials seem to have been similarly in the dark about the exercise.
"I don't have any information," said Asheville Public Information Officer Lauren Bradley, referring questions about the matter to the city manager. "I probably was in the same boat as you. I was in my bed last night and heard helicopters circling overhead and thought, what on earth is going on?"
For his part, City Manager Jim Westbrook said he had no information on the exercise "other than the fact that it was put on." He says he was informed in advance that it would occur but was given no details. "The city tries to cooperate with the military anytime they need training, in case they need a road blocked off or something like that. Other than that, we didn't have anything to do with it." Westbrook is no stranger to military operations: A Vietnam veteran, the city manager also served in the Army Reserve during his 30-year military career, retiring as a full colonel in 1997.
Asked about the exercise, Buncombe County Homeland Security Director Jerry VeHaun told Xpress, "I knew that they had one, but I don't know anything about it." He added, "I don't even know what kind of scenario they used."
And Asheville Police Chief William Hogan said he didn't have much information either. "We played a supporting role, to some extent, and were aware of it," Hogan said the day after the exercise. The APD "played a role in terms of ensuring that no one got hurt or injured," and the operation, he said, "was designed with the safety of the community in mind," though Hogan admits that there was little effort to warn city residents about what was coming. "From what I'm hearing -- I've gotten several calls -- some folks didn't seem to be aware of it. But that could happen even if warnings are put out."
Walt Sokalski, a spokesman for the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, told Xpress, "The reason we do not normally put things in the newspaper is because, when we do that, we end up having a large crowd [of spectators] and that impacts the local police department, because they then have to worry about crowd control."
"Deep noises of war and fear"
Server Christina Boykin was on duty that night at the Grape Escape, and she had a full section of customers on the restaurant's patio as the exercise played out directly across City/County Plaza. Shortly before the training began, says Boykin, two city police officers stopped by to warn her boss that there were going to be some maneuvers taking place nearby. But she says it wasn't a fair warning for the "heart-palpitating, solar-plexus-resonating deep noises of war and fear" that followed.
What Boykin and others heard, Sokalski explains, were the "breaching charges" the soldiers used to blast open doors. "Basically, you just put a special explosive on a door, and it opens it so the soldiers can gain entry," he explains, adding, "We don't use full charges, we don't use the full load." As for the gunfire, Sokalski says the soldiers were using "simunitions" during the exercise. "They're not blanks. It's special training ammunition that doesn't travel as far but still lets the soldier get the full effect of what it's like to fire at a target. We established what we call bullet traps inside the area, so nothing that we fire ever leaves the room where the soldiers are."
The bottom line, says Sokalski, is that "the public was never in any danger."
Danger or no, Boykin says she found all the commotion "pretty alarming," and she wishes the public had been better informed. "You know, if you're preparing for something like that, go ahead and put a little thing in the newspaper and warn people. I mean, you can't be covert in downtown Asheville making a ruckus."
Boykin's customers, she reports, "were just riveted, and some were very alarmed." She also wonders "how strange this must be for tourists -- who are coming into quiet, beautiful, mountainous Asheville, and then there's this."
Lee, an Asheville resident who asked that her last name not be published, lives off Martin Luther King Boulevard near downtown. "It sounded like fireworks," she told Xpress. "You'd hear one big explosion, and right after that you'd hear all the gunshots, and a little bit after that, the helicopters would fly by. ... At some point it dawned on me that they were practicing, but for a while, we thought that people were shooting at each other.
"I think it's ridiculous," she continued. "First of all, they didn't give us any warning. As a bystander who's trying to have a peaceful Thursday night and has to get up and work the next day, it was totally inappropriate. I didn't know what was going on. For all I knew, we were having a raid."
Lee's greatest frustration, she says, is that the authorities left her and her neighbors in the dark. "These people are here to protect us. So part of the way that they can protect us is to encourage a sense of trust. That's what any healthy relationship needs: communication."
Contrary to some local media reports, the exercise was primarily a U.S. Army operation with some participation by local law enforcement. "We were conducting what we call urban training exercises," Sokalski explained. He wouldn't say which Army units were involved, other than that they included "different elements of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command." Among the "elements" based at Fort Bragg are the Special Forces and the super-secret Delta Force.
"We got some great training in Asheville," said Sokalski. "We try our best to go to areas outside of the large population density, but sometimes there's a building that's just right for the training we're trying to achieve, and the courthouse achieved that."
In recent years, Army units have conducted similar urban-warfare exercises in dozens of American cities. The training often leaves behind a confused and shell-shocked citizenry, and sometimes the operations rankle civic officials as well. In March of 1997, for example, the Army staged a large-scale nighttime raid in Charlotte that sparked a firestorm of protest and prompted Mayor Pat McCrory to cancel two additional days of scheduled training.
"We were misled," McCrory told The Washington Post after the hubbub. "How they thought you could come in and out without any disturbance is beyond me. It was almost like a blitzkrieg operation. People went and got their guns. I feel fortunate no one was hurt." McCrory also sounded off about the matter in a letter to President Bill Clinton: "I am deeply disappointed in the way the Department of Defense handled this exercise," the mayor wrote. "Had we known the scope of the operation, we would have never allowed it to take place. ... Rest assured, we learned a valuable lesson and will be on our guard should we receive any other requests to stage training exercises in this city."
According to law-enforcement sources, the Buncombe County Sheriff's Department coordinated local participation in the exercise, with assistance from the Asheville Police Department. Their principal role was maintaining some security around the area, warning adjacent businesses and fending off curious civilians.
At about 11:30 that night, this reporter approached a group of men standing near the courthouse as the sound of explosions echoed out of the building. A few were uniformed APD officers; a few wore civilian garb. Asked what all the boom and bang was about, a police officer responded, "Just doing some military training." What kind of military training? "Just good ol' training," he said.
[Freelance writer Jon Elliston is based in Asheville.]