Ruben Ayala doesn't get what all the fuss is about.
The San Antonio resident and former Green Beret spent 13 years in the U.S. Army before retiring as a captain. When he first heard about "Operation Jade Helm 15" — an eight-week special forces training exercise set to begin in South Texas on July 15 — it sounded like many of the exercises he took part in as a soldier.
"These things are commonplace," Ayala said. "Once the exercise is done, [people] will see that it will be completed without fanfare."
Operation Jade Helm will take place in seven Southwest states, including Texas. According to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, "the diverse terrain in these states replicates areas Special Operations Soldiers regularly find themselves operating overseas."
But that's not what conspiracy theorists, right-wing talk show hosts and even the governor of Texas would have you believe.
Shortly after the operation was announced, it became fodder for the tin foil hat crowd. On various unseemly corners of the internet, anxious rumors spread about the operation as the first step towards martial law, an effort to collect personal firearms, or an Obama administration takeover of the Lone Star State.
The chatter was met by most with a roll of the eyes until late April, when Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercise. Abbott's order legitimized the fringe's fears.
In a letter to Major General Jake Betty, who commands the Texas State Guard, Abbott said "it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed."
Abbot continued: "By monitoring the Operation on a continual basis, the State Guard will ... ensure that adequate measures are in place to protect Texans."
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have scurried away from that position — even fellow conservatives who would normally align with Abbott.
Former Gov. Rick Perry, who has all but declared to run for president again, said that questioning the Army operation may have gone "too far."
Another former Texas legislator wasn't as diplomatic.
Todd Smith, a Republican from Euless who spent 16 years in Austin, wrote to Abbott on April 30, chastising the governor for "pandering to idiots."
"I am horrified that I have to choose between the possibility that my Governor actually believes this stuff and the possibility that my Governor doesn't have the backbone to stand up to those who do. I'm not sure which is worse," Smith wrote.
Abbott can take solace in the fact that one of the few politicians to stand beside him is Rep. Louie Gohmert, the infamous Republican from Tyler who's perhaps best known for his position on "terror babies": children born in the U.S. who would be reared to perpetrate terrorism against their home country.
Gohmert took issue with the fact that on the Jade Helm map, "the hostile areas amazingly have a Republican majority, 'cling to their guns and religion,' and believe in the sanctity of the United States Constitution."
To Gohmert, this is no joking matter. Others may also doubt other suspicious activity such as lurking Islamic State terrorists, but he said they need to think twice.
"Such labeling tends to make people ... become suspicious of whether their big brother government anticipates certain states may start another civil war or be overtaken by foreign radical Islamist elements which have been reported to be just across our border," Gohmert said in a news release.
The "Texas takeover" argument doesn't hold water with Ayala, though.
"People gotta remember that there's a human component to it. A lot of these soldiers and sailors that partake in these exercises, they're probably from Texas," Ayala said. "If there was some secret order ... to take over the state in some form of martial law, some red flags would be raised up somewhere."
But the hubbub surrounding the exercise seems to have seeped into the greater public consciousness.
A poll unveiled last week by Rasmussen Reports showed that 45 percent of voters are worried that the government will use the operation to impose greater control over some states, with almost 20 percent of voters "very concerned" about that possibility.
Bill Smith, another former Green Beret who now runs the San Antonio chapter of the Special Forces Association, said that exercises like Jade Helm are "critical" for adequate training of special forces members.
"It's a great opportunity," Smith said. "But it's not a new thing."
Smith declined to comment on Abbott's move with the state guard, saying it's something he didn't want to discuss. But he noted that the public uproar stems from a "lack of knowledge" about the operation.
"It comes from a lot of misunderstandings of what's going on," Smith said. "These training exercises have gone on as long as I've been in the military. They're very effective."
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