War of words | VailDaily.com

War of words

CAMP HALE — On a cold evening in January, snow was starting to swirl, the light was diffusing rapidly, and ghostlike figures in full combat gear stood on their snowshoes with M-16 assault rifles slung over their shoulders or held loosely at their sides.Humvees in camouflage paint lined U.S. Highway 24, a designated scenic byway that connects the historic mining town of Leadville to the railroad town turned boutique bedroom community of Minturn. And men with guns and tons of gear surrounded the sign announcing the entrance to Camp Hale, where the famed 10th Mountain Division alpine troops trained for World War II.The rows and rows of barracks that housed those ski troopers, many of whom fought in Italy and would later return to launch Colorado’s ski industry, are long gone. Only foundations and stray ordinance from long-ago training exercises remain.So the sight of these modern mountain warriors at a time when the possibility of war is burned into every American’s brain was like a time warp with a twist. Because, as it turns out, these aren’t your grandfather’s ski troopers.The soldiers getting set to “ruck” in all that gear by snowshoe for a couple of nights of winter warfare training were members of the U.S. Army Reserve’s 324th Psyop (Psychological Operations) Unit based in Denver. And the piles of equipment disappearing under a feathery layer of snow included loudspeakers.”We provide information; that’s basically what we are,” says Sgt. Bruce Davis, the unit’s senior NCO (non-commissioned officer). “In a layman’s sense, we do marketing. We try to sell democracy and the concept of how it works.”Do not, however, use the word propaganda. That carries a negative connotation, Davis says, and one that doesn’t accurately reflect the breadth of what a psyop unit does.As an example, he points to Panama in 1990, when a loudspeaker unit deployed as part of the invasion force surrounded strongman Manuel Noriega’s hideout in a residency of the Catholic Church and bombarded it with blaring rock music. Noriega ultimately surrendered peacefully to U.S. Army Delta Force troops and was brought back to stand trial in the United States.Loudspeakers, Davis says, are “particularly useful in broadcasting a deception,” such as recordings of helicopters, or the sounds of troop or tank movements that could convince an enemy commander to retreat or surrender. Other tools of psyop units include leaflet drops, weapons buybacks and face-to-face communications with the natives.But why the weekend at Camp Hale, a mountainous location near 10,000 feet that made it ideal for alpine maneuvers during World War II?”Basically it’s winter training, and Camp Hale just happens to be a good place to go and somewhere we haven’t been before,” Davis says. “We can be deployed anywhere in the world at any time, so we need to make sure we’re trained in a variety of different types of environments.”Hearts and mindsDavis, who previously served in both Haiti and Bosnia, would not disclose whether his unit has been called up to serve in the looming invasion of Iraq, where mountain warfare training will not exactly be at a premium.”It could be Afghanistan,” speculates Donald Goldstein, professor of public and international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. “We know they’re training; whether they’re winning the hearts and minds, I’m not quite sure, but what they’re learning is how to fight in that weather and terrain.”Goldstein, a leading warfare expert who’s written numerous books on air and land combat, is skeptical of the effectiveness of psyop units.”It’s all bulls___,” he says. “The new concept is that you have to learn what these guys are all about, so you learn their customs and you learn a little Afghan so you can say, How are you doing today?'”Warfare has changed to the point that instead of just killing people, you have to understand them first.”But Davis says such tactics pay dividends both in terms of disseminating and gathering information.”We’re probably the most highly educated type of unit in the army,” Davis says. “A (psyop soldier) does have to have a rather broad spectrum of skills and experiences, and you have to be very broadminded because you’re dealing with other cultures and other people.”And, as evidenced by the Camp Hale training in full combat gear, psychological operations troops have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios.”I’ve had teams in situations where they’ve been shot at and situations where it’s been very tense with people looking at them down the barrel of a gun in very large crowds,” Davis says. “And again, that’s up to the skill and tact of the team leader to diffuse the situation.”Davis adds, though, that a psyop unit usually doesn’t go into situations with guns blazing. “We’re not going to go in a full ‘battle rattle,’ with flack jackets, helmets and fatigues and weapons,” he says. “We try to make it more of a non-threatening posture. You have to establish a rapport with your target audience in order to disseminate the information you’re trying to disseminate.”Secret pastWhile the 324th Psyop Unit does not regularly train at Camp Hale, officials with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns and maintains the camp and the surrounding area, say the 10th Special Forces out of Fort Carson conduct fairly regular winter warfare training there.That unit should not be confused with the modern 10th Mountain Division based in Fort Drum, N.Y., one of the army’s three light-infantry divisions and one of the most heavily deployed.Earl E. Clark of Littleton, an 83-year-old retired lieutenant colonel and a veteran of the 10th Mountain Division who trained at Camp Hale and fought in Italy against fierce German resistance, says he’s not surprised by the type of training going on near Leadville now. But he acknowledges it’s very different from what he went through.”That’s what we’re dealing with now,” Clark says, “not only a known enemy and known military situation such as Iraq and Saddam Hussein, but the unknown and this whole element of terror warfare. (In World War II) we were fighting against a known foe under conditions for which we had been prepared.”But Clark notes it’s not the first time Camp Hale has been used for training troops outside the realm of the regular army. In the late 1950s, the CIA trained Tibetan guerillas there to return to fight the Chinese.”It ultimately was stopped because as far as the guerillas were concerned, the Chinese forces were so great in number that the operations of the guerillas against them were meaningless, and most of them were either captured or annihilated,” Clark says.He adds that munitions found at Camp Hale the last few years, which have prompted Forest Service closures of the area for cleanup efforts, are likely attributable to the CIA training that went on there, not World War II operations.”It isn’t logical that something that was there 60 years ago is still there,” Clark says of the unexploded ordinance.Davis, who says his unit did not encounter any old mortar rounds or grenades in their weekend in the woods, says the training was a success and he hopes to repeat it in the near future.”The training actually went pretty well for us,” Davis says. “We had a number of people in the unit who did not have experience on snowshoes and skis, and this allowed them the opportunity to train with their equipment on.”

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