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Army's Reality Game Takes a Deadly Turn

Military: A soldier dies, another is wounded in misunderstanding over N.C. training exercise.


ROBBINS, N.C. — Saturday afternoon was chilly and windy--too cold, Deputy Randall Butler later told colleagues, for anyone to be riding around in the back of a pickup truck.

So the second time the Moore County sheriff's deputy saw the green open-bed truck just outside the limits of this tiny town, he pulled over the driver and two passengers--each unshaven and wearing blue jeans and flannel shirts.

Within minutes Butler fired, fearing for his life, after the passengers moved to attack him, one shouting to the other: "Shoot him! Get the gun! Shoot him! He's got a gun!" One man was killed and another seriously injured.

What Butler did not know--what he had little way of knowing--was that he had killed 1st Lt. Tallas Tomeny and wounded Sgt. Stephen Phelps. They thought they were playing the war game known as "Robin Sage," part of their intensive final examination to earn the coveted Green Beret of the U.S. Army's Special Forces. Their driver, Charles Leiber, a civilian volunteer who had been placed in the squad car for questioning before the shooting, was unharmed.

To a degree, the Army conceded such an incident may have been more likely in light of the high alert that police everywhere have been on since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At the same time, the Army considers such training exercises vital preparation for conflicts such as Afghanistan.

Moore County Dist. Atty. Garland N. Yates said no charges would be brought against anyone. He noted that Butler had "absolutely no knowledge" that the men were in a training exercise and the soldiers believed Butler was playing a role in the war game.

The episode, called a "fatal misunderstanding" by Army officials at a news conference Tuesday at Ft. Bragg, highlighted a breakdown in communication between the military and local law enforcement officials. The failure to communicate appeared deeper when Robbins' Police Chief D.L. Brown said Tuesday afternoon that one of his officers had a similar encounter a week earlier with troops participating in the same 19-day training exercise.

In that incident, just a few miles from the fatal shooting, Officer J.D. Garner pulled over a truck towing a trailer with a canvas cover. At least one soldier thought Garner was taking part in the war game and fired on him using blank ammunition. Garner, a former Robin Sage volunteer, realized what was happening and held his fire.

In this traffic stop, the soldiers in the back of the covered trailer were in uniform. Brown said Garner informed military instructors immediately. But the Moore County Sheriff's Department said they were not told of the potentially dangerous encounter until the day after their officer shot and killed Tomeny, 31.

Army officials said that in the past, unplanned events, particularly with law enforcement officials familiar with Robin Sage, were viewed as a bonus to the realism of the exercise.

But Army officials said unlike other local law enforcement agencies, the Moore County Sheriff's Department had never participated in these games. Lane Carter, chief deputy in the department, said his officers were aware that troops trained in the area but had no idea the exercises would involve soldiers wearing civilian clothes in civilian vehicles.

The Army moved immediately to prevent future misunderstandings, ordering all Green Beret candidates to be in uniform throughout the exercise and switching from phone and mail notification of local law enforcement to face-to-face meetings.

They also discontinued the long-standing use of training activities that involved uniformed local law enforcement officials role-playing with soldiers--a tactic that had been used as recently as last week.

But the Army said it would not cancel or cut back the current Robin Sage training exercise, which still has 199 prospective Green Berets out in the field through Saturday.

"This exercise is unique within the Army not only in its setup and organization but in the fact that it has been consistently validated by operational success on the part of special operations soldiers around the world," said Col. Charles A. King, commander of the 1st Special Warfare Training Group.

The training is conducted among civilians in parts of 10 central North Carolina counties that make up nearly 4,500 square miles. King said there was no way the exercises could be replicated within the borders of Ft. Bragg. The move, he said, might eliminate confusion between role-playing and reality but would also greatly limit the test of a soldier's ability to react.

Army officials said civilians have always been used to stage the Robin Sage training. King noted that many of the 100 volunteers are second- and even third-generation participants who are acting out of "patriotism" and are not paid for their work.

Civilians are critical to realistic training, Army officials say, since dealing with nonmilitary people mimics the skills soldiers will need in the field.

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