Two Black Hawk helicopters flew in swift and low, kissing the ground just long enough to deliver 20 Fort Bragg infantrymen, their packs loaded down with surveillance and communications gear and a couple days’ supply of food and water.
The men jumped off, headed for the cover of the forest, and dispersed in twos and threes toward their targets. The whirling birds took off to get a second load.
Before dark on Tuesday, more than 50 soldiers had disappeared into the woods on a weeklong mission to scope out the potential for reclaiming this area from hypothetical invasive enemy forces, most of whom are believed to have withdrawn across the nearby border to their own country. But the combatants will be back, maybe in a couple of weeks. Maybe a couple of days.
Before that happens, U.S. soldiers must learn as much as they can about the where those forces are now and what kind of mobility and firepower they have; the status of a couple of hydroelectric dams in the region that the enemy would naturally like to control; and whether local civilians are friendly.
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They must do all this in unfamiliar terrain, without being detected by enemy fighters, or by anyone else who populates the fictional territory of Rutherford in the made-up nation of Carollan, known on current maps as the Uwharrie National Forest, a few miles north of the Montgomery County town of Troy.
“They’re out there,” Capt. Brendan McCarthy said of his men in Charlie Troop, the dismounted surveillance and reconnaissance troop for the 3rd Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, part of 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team. “But you won’t see ’em.”
The soldiers are spending this week crouching in the leaves and sleeping on the dirt 70 miles west of Fort Bragg to practice the skills they would use if the Black Hawks had dropped them somewhere in Afghanistan instead. Or Syria.
“You could apply this scenario to any conflict in the world right now,” McCarthy said.
Since the pace of combat deployments at Fort Bragg has slowed, units across the base have had the chance to beef up their training in essential skills. And while Charlie Troop can, and does, train on the sprawling post, some of its soldiers know the backwoods of the base as well as they know the backs of their own hands. Furthermore, they’re distracted when they’re on post by other duties: paperwork, maintenance, housekeeping.
Here, they can immerse completely into the stealth world of military surveillance and recon for days, practicing what they have already learned in an environment completely different from the one they know best.
While Fort Bragg spreads out across the sandhills, the Uwharries’ 51,000 acres are “rolling to rugged,” said Deborah Walker, district ranger for the forest. “The experience they can get here would be somewhat similar to, say, Afghanistan, except for the vegetation. We have the steepness, the remoteness, the lack of roads and access points, where you’re having to rely more on your own abilities and not have the conveniences of a developed area.”
Military forces train in all four of the national forests in North Carolina: the Uwharries in the Piedmont, the Croatan near the coast, and the Pisgah and the Nantahala in the mountains.
Alert the public
Although they try to be unobtrusive, there have been issues. In 2002, a Moore County deputy shot two soldiers he did not realize were part of Fort Bragg’s long-running Robin Sage training exercise. One died of his injuries.
Now, the military takes extra steps to alert the public that they may see the soldiers or aircraft in the area. Robin Sage participants wear special armbands to identify them.
The Forest Service stays in touch with the Army so it knows the areas in which soldiers are working from day to day, so that if hikers, bikers, horseback riders, geocachers or ATV riders who use the forest encounter camouflaged men carrying weapons, rangers can explain why.
“Somebody will say it was the middle of the night, and they saw these guys with night-vision goggles on and got really spooked,” Walker said. “It happens a couple of times a year.”
The Army also works with the county emergency management officials to make sure that if there is a medical mishap, there is plenty of staff to handle it. During this week’s event, two medics are backing up the company that provides the county’s ambulance service in case a soldier takes a tree branch in the eye, or breaks an ankle or gets bitten by a copperhead.
McCarthy, a West Point graduate and seven-year veteran of the Army, plays two roles in the training. He helps run the scenario, in which soldiers gather and convey information that is passed to higher headquarters where, in the real world, it would be used to determine the infantry’s next move. He also plays an administrative role, making sure the soldiers have what they need to carry out the exercise.
While his soldiers move through the woods on foot, covering up to 7 miles a day, McCarthy’s small command relocates its short- and long-range radios, antennae, and water and food supplies via trucks and off-road vehicles that bounce along the rutted forest service roads.
Except for those brief flurries of activity, the mission is carried out in whispers. Boots move silently across leaves on the forest floor. Zippers are opened slowly.
In training, a soldier’s real enemy is often boredom. Like much of what the military does, surveillance and reconnaissance work involves long stretches of waiting: for an enemy to make a move, for a call to come across the radio. Sometimes, McCarthy said, Charlie Troop may have to sit on a target for 12 to 24 hours.
“You have to be patient,” he said. “You just do what the mission requires.”