Three Army soldiers conducting a training exercise. (Source: Carteret County Sheriff's Office)
Three Army soldiers conducting a training exercise. (Source: Carteret County Sheriff’s Office)

JACKSONVILLE, North Carolina — On Dec. 2, as law enforcement officials began exchanging gunfire with San Bernardino, Calif., shooters Syed R. Farook and Tashfeen Malik, U.S. Army officials in Fort Bragg, N.C., conducted a training exercise that wound up scaring the local community, already on edge following news of the West coast attack on their televisions and social media.

Three unidentified U.S. Army soldiers wearing plain clothes showed up at White Oak Elementary School and Bogue Sound Elementary School asking school officials at both locations if the schools were crisis evacuation centers. When school administrators became suspicious of the men because of the questions being asked, the men presented “military style ID cards” and said they were representatives from U.S. Army base Fort Bragg, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, according to a press release from Carteret County Sheriffs Office.

In fact, the Army was conducting a “training exercise” under the “Global Reaction Force Operation” or what is commonly known as GRF, without informing local law enforcement and the general public of the exercise, according to The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C.

The GRF is a joint special operation task force made up of roughly 5,000 soldiers spread out between two infantry battalions, a reconnaissance squadron, field artillery and special operation forces and supporting elements, such as transportation vehicles and engineers. The GRF remains in a constant high state of readiness to deploy within an 18-hour window to any crisis around the world; the U.S. Marine Corps has a similar program called ACM or Air Contingency Marine Air Ground Task Force, whose duties, like the Army, continuously rotate from unit to unit throughout the entire force.

Department of Defense installations reportedly did not tell local law enforcement there would be training exercises or security assessments underway in Carteret County, according to The Daily News. And the three men apparently went beyond the scope of their exercise.

“While these soldiers were trying to go above and beyond the call of duty, they just had poor judgment at the time,” said Cartaret County Sheriff Asa Buck III, who spoke with Checkpoint over the phone. “The three things that cause this incident are no prior notification to local law enforcement, the three soldiers going outside the scope of their mission and a disconnect between local law enforcement and Fort Bragg…We just didn’t know who to call to identify these guys.”

The three men would later be located and identified within hours as members of the U.S. Army’s Delta Civil Affairs Company stationed out of Fort Bragg, the largest Army installation in the world. Fort Bragg houses approximately 64,000 service members and civilian workers and is the home to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) and 82nd Airborne Division, according to its website. The men were found after Carteret County Deputies, special agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Naval Criminal Investigation Service met with the three men previously sought for questioning and confirmed their military affiliation.

Still, their actions were enough to spook another elementary school an hour and 45 minutes away from Carteret County. Carolina Forrest International Elementary School (CFIE) had teachers checking identifications before they allowed visitors to enter the school. CFIE Principal Dr. Helen Gross told Checkpoint that, “Right now, with everything in the news, I am making sure that the students here are safe and this building is secure, I am just not buying what the military is saying at this point.”

The next day, White Oak Elementary School saw an approximately 14 percent increase in school absences, from 10 percent to 24 percent. Bogue Sound Elementary School reported that 19 percent of the student population was out of class, according to a joint press conference between Sheriff Asa Buck and School District Superintendent Dan Novey and reported by The Daily News.

In an email from Army Lt. Col. Samuel K. Simpson II to Carteret County Officials, Simpson apologized for the turmoil caused within the communities, saying, “I am the commander for the Soldiers that visited the Carteret County schools yesterday and I would like to apologize for the angst that their visit created in your community today. Let me assure you this will not happen again.”

Simpson went onto state that the training exercise was only supposed to last one day, but his battalion did not coordinate in advance with local authorities or the institutions they would be visiting, a failure Simpson took full responsibility for. The soldiers also did not have authorization to visit the school.

“The soldiers in question deviated from the planned training to accomplish what are normal training objectives for our type of unit when we deploy overseas,” Simpson said, “The soldiers in question will be counseled on the impact their actions had on the local community and they will receive additional training to prevent future incidents.”

James LaPorta is a freelance journalist and part-time military reporter for The Daily News in Jacksonville, N.C. He is a former Marine infantry rifleman and intelligence cell chief.