LAUREL HILL — Those gathered on a playground or front porch near the Laurel Hill Community Center on Wednesday morning were privy to an odd sight — the arrival of two unmarked vans carrying a mix of uniformed soldiers and a somewhat motley crew of bearded, tattooed men in gym shorts, jeans and T-shirts.
Those who had gotten wind of the group’s arrival and stuck around under the center’s outdoor shelter or on the tailgate of a pick-up witnessed the scene get stranger as the group worked to modify the old gym with propaganda, and Humvees carrying about a dozen more soldiers rolled slowly into the parking lot.
“If I didn’t know any better I’d be nervous,” joked Mike Edge from the sidelines.
Edge, who heads training and development for Scotland County EMS, was waiting for his team to be called to the action unfolding as part of Operation Sluss Tiller, the culmination exercise for the U.S. Army’s Civil Affairs Qualification Course.
An offshoot of the Robin Sage exercise, which qualifies soldiers to become Special Forces, Operation Sluss Tiller is the final exam for soldiers who have applied to be a part of the Army’s Civil Affairs and have for months trained through the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg.
“They started off in the army as something else — infantry, medic, engineer, personnel,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jason McLeod, who on Wednesday was tasked with filming the exercise. “They had to submit an application packet, they’ve done a whole battery of tests… . This is where they have to apply everything that they’ve learned — language skills, negotiation skills, medic, everything. Depending on how well they do they can graduate, re-cycle and do this again or go back to their old job.”
Civil Affairs specialists work to assess the needs of a local population in developing or war-torn countries, or those hit by severe natural disasters, often assisting or collecting information for rebuilding or reconstruction efforts. Janice Burton, of the Fort Bragg school’s office of strategic communications, said in an email that the Civil Affairs Community has “frequently been associated with the term ‘winning hearts and minds.’”
At about 9:30 a.m., students rolled up to an escalated situation between clashing ethnic groups in the People’s Republic of Pineland, a fictional country with an elaborately constructed backstory of Civil Wars and dislocated residents. After a few moments spent inside the old gym, staged as a recruiting office for a local militia, simulated gunfire drew the group outside where they found two men, a soldier and a civilian, lying on the pavement with “bleeding” torsos.
“This shows how easily one simple meeting can turn into a possible casualty,” said Scotland County Sheriff’s Lt. Earl Haywood, who led a team from the sheriff’s office in locating the “shooter.”
“Just because we’re in Laurinburg doesn’t mean it can’t happen. If it happens in New York or another major city, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in a small rural town like Laurinburg. You have the potential for anything to evolve into something more dangerous to the point where you have an uprising.”
At 9:45 a.m., students were buzzing around the wounded, talking on satellite phones, applying tourniquets and yelling for supplies. Laurel Hill Fire Department was on the scene and sirens could be heard in the near distance.
By 10:05 a.m., the “patients” were on their way to Scotland Memorial Hospital via a county ambulance, Humvees following close behind. The arrival of the caravan marked the end of the exercise.
“You’re working with departments you’ve never worked with before and how to integrate more and more with them,” Edge said. “We’ve worked with the military before and they’re becoming a bigger presence, so anytime we can train with them we’re excited to do that.”
Though it was the first time an operation of this size had been conducted with the assistance of local agencies, the county has dealt with Civil Affairs specialists several times. According to County Manager Kevin Patterson, the office helped trace the source of this year’s local shigella outbreak.
Wednesday’s exercise was for Patterson a chance for county agencies to take advantage of a learning experience.
“We’ve been looking at different ways of training, being more county-involved in these events so we can get some training out of it,” he said.
Lt. Col. Paul Schmidt, who heads the program along with Maj. Mike Adams, said moving soldiers outside of their comfort zone on Fort Bragg helps to inject a greater sense of reality.
“Things like this are of incredible valuable to us,” he said. “You watch the news, you see things like this going on all over the world — its stuff just like what we’re replicating here.”
Though slightly disappointed by the exercise, which proved to be less bombastic than he expected, onlooker and local pastor David Shoemaker said he’s sure the training will come in handy when what he views as the inevitable takes place.
“I think it’s getting us prepared for what’s coming,” he said. “Whether it’s a local crisis or something bigger.”
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-506-3023. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco.