National Guard unit scales back plans, won't train at Arcadia
Readiness concern, not outcry, cited as drill is moved to armoryhttp://www.carrollspaper.com/main.asp?SectionID=1&SubSectionID=1&ArticleID=7489&TM=57006.77
By BUTCH HEMAN
Operational readiness, not public reaction, prompted the Carroll National Guard unit to decide against conducting urban training at Arcadia, according to a Guard spokesman.
Company A, 1st Battalion, 168th Infantry had planned a four-day exercise the first weekend of April to practice cordon-and-search operations in an urban environment. The drill - which would use only homes that agreed to participate - would've involved searching for and apprehending a suspected weapons dealer, valuable practice should the air-assault infantry company again be deployed to the Mideast.
Outcry, mostly in the form of e-mails and online comments, began two days after The Times Herald published an article about the drill on Monday, Feb. 23. Reaction escalated after the story was discussed by WHO Radio's Jan Michaelson on Wednesday, and the issue went national when right-wing radio host Alex Jones spent more than an hour of his weekday four-hour show Friday discussing the matter.
The Times Herald, the Carroll Guard unit and local authorities received hundreds of e-mails and dozens of phone calls Friday through the weekend, mostly by those who'd listened to Jones' show and read his Web site, www.infowars.com
Infowars.com posted The Times Herald's article without permission, and although full credit was given, the Web site misled its visitors by changing the headline to say "Iowa National Guard to train for gun confiscation." Guard officials had no intention and made no mention of searching Arcadia homes for weapons, and the newspaper's headline read "Guardsmen to conduct urban training at Arcadia."
The Web site didn't correct its headline until requested by The Times Herald via e-mail Friday afternoon.
But by then the misleading headline had riled up Jones' listeners and infowars.com readers. Most who posted comments below the article on the Web site and who e-mailed The Times Herald were under the incorrect impression that Guardsmen would randomly be going door to door in Arcadia searching for guns.
Most e-mailers and posters were claiming the exercise would violate Second Amendment rights of citizens to keep and bear arms or would violate laws barring federal soldiers from patrolling streets and searching homes.
Some vowed to protest at the April 2-5 exercise, while others went much further, saying they'd show up at Arcadia with weapons to defend homes against the Guardsmen or even set booby traps to injure the soldiers.
Jones promised to host his radio show from Arcadia while he personally protested the drill, and he asked his followers to protest there as well.
Nearly 600 comments were left below articles about the Arcadia drill posted on infowars.com. This writer received about 300 e-mails and a dozen calls, some at home, over the weekend. Not one of those came from any resident of Arcadia, and nearly all originated out of state.
City of Arcadia officials said they'd fielded many phone calls, mostly from out of state. E-mails and calls to the Carroll County Sheriff's Office, Carroll Police Department and Carroll Fire Department were fewer.
Alpha Company and its parent 1st Battalion decided over the weekend to scale back the exercise.
"They reviewed the training," Lt. Col. Rich Hapgood, public affairs officer for the Iowa National Guard, told The Times Herald. "Because there's new leadership both at the company and at the battalion, they reassessed the training and said, 'You know, we're really not at the proficiency we'd like to be to do the entire company-level exercise.' So what they decided to do was focus on squad and platoon proficiency at these particular tasks."
Those tasks will be conducted the same weekend in April but at the Carroll armory, not Arcadia. Hapgood said the training will include cordon and search, which soldiers will need experience on should they be deployed in support of the Global War on Terror. The Carroll Guard unit was activated for a security mission to Afghanistan in 2004-05.
"When we're in Iraq or Afghanistan," Hapgood explained, "our soldiers will often provide security and/or direct support of some kind on what we call a cordon-and-search mission, which is really to search for particularly dangerous things, like stores of weapons, improvised explosive devices, bomb-making materials or persons of interest."
The Guardsmen will still practice those tasks in April, but in smaller groups of squads and platoons rather than the full company.
"They'll probably have time to do some other tasks as well," added Hapgood. "When you're talking about involving an entire company in a training event, that takes a lot of coordination and a lot of planning. There are a lot of moving parts. So this will scale it back. It'll have less of a footprint than what the Arcadia event would've had."
Reaction to the intended exercise at Arcadia had nothing to do with the decision to scale it back, Hapgood said.
"It was not a factor in our decision," he commented.
A local Guard company decides much of its training, but all training is approved by its parent battalion.
"This was a company decision" to scale back the exercise, Hapgood said.
"Our decisions are based on soldier readiness and providing the greatest degree of preparation for our soldiers that we can. And that being said, it just happened that you've got new leadership at the company and battalion who reviewed the training and said, 'We should really be focusing on squads and platoons at this point rather than companies anyway.' It really gave them a chance to step back and say, 'Is the unit ready for this kind of training anyway?' What they determined is they need to step up their efforts at a smaller level before they build to the company-level training event. ... They said, 'We need to crawl before we're going to walk and run.' They're kind of in the crawl-walk stage, and that's why they decided to downsize."
When told it's going to appear the Guard backed down due to public reaction, mostly by right-wingers, Hapgood remarked, "Let them think that. We know the truth, and it's a great deal different than what they're advocating."
Hapgood said the Guard headquarters in Johnston received no opposition to the drill from anyone in the Arcadia and Carroll areas.
"We have only gotten two isolated e-mails from anywhere in the state, and nowhere near western Iowa," he said during a telephone interview Sunday. "Nearly 100 percent of the complaints have been from people outside of the state. And some of them are borderline threats. The language they used, they should be embarrassed for themselves. They weren't Iowans in those e-mails. That's one thing we can find comfort in."
Arcadia and Carroll have been "incredible allies" in their support of the Guard unit, Hapgood continued.
"They really have adopted Company A, they really feel those are their soldiers and they'll support them in any way they can," he said. "We couldn't be prouder of the way that our Iowa communities have responded to us and supported us."
State Rep. Rod Roberts of Carroll said he received calls, e-mails and questions about the Arcadia exercise but only one from a constituent.
Initial news of the drill "caught me off guard," he said.
"I was like 'What?'" Roberts said. "Then when I read that line about how they'd be using a Blackhawk helicopter, I said 'Please, that doesn't help.'"
Roberts took his concerns to fellow House member Jodi Tymeson, who's a brigadier general and deputy commander of the Iowa Guard.
"I said, 'Jodi, even at face value, I read this and bells go off. Maybe it's perfectly fine, but I've got to think the public relations division with the Guard needs to go back and find out how this needs to be handled in terms of public relations,'" Roberts said. "I also said, 'You've got to have an explanation for this because I think they've dropped the ball ... and it's putting the Guard in a bad light.'"
Arcadia Mayor Oran Kohorst said he'd gotten about a dozen calls from out of state - one caller promised to bring 5,500 "minutemen" from North Dakota to challenge the Guardsmen while a caller from California said he'd bring 50,000 protesters - but heard no opposition to the drill from any resident of Arcadia.
"We support the Guard," he said, noting that Guard officials explained their plans to the Arcadia City Council earlier this month and the council was in full favor.
The Guard did make one modification for Arcadia.
"We didn't want Arcadia to appear we're having fun with terrorists," Kohorst said, "so they came up with this suspected arms dealer thing.
"It started out to be an exercise. We just wanted to help the Guard to be ready if they have to go overseas. But it just kind of blew up. Nothing this serious has ever happened in Arcadia. We have our cat and dog problems and other small-town things, but nothing like this.
"I really feel sorry for the National Guard having to justify their actions."
Tony Vonnahme, who'd been asked to play the suspected arms dealer in the drill, said he didn't commit because he wanted more information. The Guard had planned to hold a town meeting Monday, March 2, to explain the exercise and ask for volunteers.
"To me it was totally innocent," said Vonnahme, who is a real-life gun dealer, owning Shooters Outlet in Arcadia. "But things got ugly real quick. I got calls from North Dakota, Washington, Illinois, Ohio ... It really had me concerned. My guts were torn up. I mean, I had people calling me telling me to evacuate the city. I was thinking 'This isn't even funny. This is wild.'"
Vonnahme said he's glad the Guard decided against practicing in Arcadia.
"It got blown way out of proportion," he said.