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Fort Bragg's PsyOps Soldiers Train for Civilian Emergencies

A tactical psychological operations team from the 9th Military Information Support Battalion broadcasts an emergency message during civil support training at Camp Butner, N.C., March 19, 2016. (Photo: Spc. Jeremie Lee)
A tactical psychological operations team from the 9th Military Information Support Battalion broadcasts an emergency message during civil support training at Camp Butner, N.C., March 19, 2016. (Photo: Spc. Jeremie Lee)

CAMP BUTNER — In a disaster, there are numerous organizations prepared to help with food, water or medical aid.

But a group of soldiers from Fort Bragg's psychological operations community is offering skills few others have.

The soldiers promise to inform, even in situations where communities have effectively been cut off from the rest of the world.

Earlier this month, the 3rd Military Information Support Battalion showed those skills to officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the two groups devised how best to use the soldiers should the need arise.

The battalion is part of the 4th Military Information Support Group, also based at Fort Bragg.

In an exercise built around a mock earthquake, the soldiers operated for nearly a week out of Camp Butner, a North Carolina National Guard training post northeast of Durham.

There, the soldiers practiced sharing life-saving information, said their commander, Lt. Col. Christopher L. Schilling.

In a scenario where communications networks were severely damaged, his soldiers showed how they would reach the most isolated populations using their tools — from leaflets that can be dropped from the sky or distributed on the ground, to loudspeakers and technology that allows the soldiers to create their own television and radio broadcasts and send mass notifications to cell phones.

While those are skills the unit often uses overseas, officials said the soldiers were training differently from how they typically deploy.

For one, they were unarmed as they traveled the training area. But the biggest difference was in how the messages were crafted.

Instead of an agenda driven by combat or allied forces, the soldiers in a domestic scenario would be "strictly in an informing role," said Capt. Angel Ruiz, the assistant battalion operations officer.

Ruiz helped plan the exercise, which was centered around a federal law that allows active-duty troops to be deployed domestically as a Civil Authority Information Support Element, or CAISE.

The CAISE mission is not new to the 3rd battalion and other, similar units, but it has seen little practice in recent years.

"This is not a traditional role for us," Ruiz said. "It's not something we would train for every day."

While small groups of soldiers conducted these types of missions in the past following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, Ruiz said it hasn't previously been practiced on such a large scale.

With its battalion headquarters element in the heart of Camp Butner, its expeditionary companies were dispersed across the training area, armed with cameras, printers and antennas that built an unseen network of informational broadcasts.

With more than 200 troops participating in the exercise, soldiers took turns using their tools to spread information about shelters and clean water, or helping organizations connect displaced loved ones.

They also involved soldiers from the unit who stayed at Fort Bragg and were ready to provide graphic design, broadcast studio support or larger publishing jobs.

Soldiers from a sister unit, the 9th Military Information Support Battalion, and Marines from the Marine Corps Information Operations Center provided tactical loudspeaker teams capable of piping information for more than a mile through speakers fixed to Humvees, helicopters, boats or backpacks.

Schilling said the troops also participated in classes conducted by FEMA leaders

"This is a learning environment," he said. "These soldiers are training and learning."

Following an afternoon demonstration, FEMA and the soldiers met to discuss how the unit could be used in real relief efforts.

"The big question is 'What services would they need from us?'" said Maj. Brian Horvath, the battalion operations officer.

"They weren't sure how to plug us in," Horvath said. "This will lead to a lot more shared understanding."

He said that could help if the battalion's services are needed for an actual disaster.

"This is our first time together on the ground in a live training scenario," Horvath said. "If we're called, it's going to be because of a big event. It's going to be a large-scale, multi-state disaster and there won't be time to be cordial."

The largest battalion in the U.S. Army's psychological operations regiment, elements from the 3rd Battalion are regularly deployed as part of a worldwide mission.

But the soldiers are rarely used in large numbers like they were at Camp Butner. That presented its own challenges.

"We've had a lot of growing pains," said 1st Lt. Dave Mooney, the executive officer for A Company. "We haven't done this in a while. You know the big things you bring, but you forget the little things. Like soap."

Mooney said the domestic scenario was unique, but not so different the unit couldn't adjust quickly.

Capt. Cole Setzer, the executive officer for C Company, agreed that the biggest challenges were logistical.

He said that made the battalion think on its feet.

There are new headaches, Setzer said, but there also are some issues the soldiers don't have to worry about.

"Usually, we're thinking of defeating some external threat," he said. "But in this case, we're not there to neutralize an enemy. We're there to help."

As part of their training, soldiers regularly reach out to mock villages, where other troops act as residents of a migrant community. They talk to residents, or set up a broadcast system that allows the soldiers to put out their own radio, television and cell phone signals for miles around the antenna supported by a Humvee configured into a Broadcast Support Vehicle, or what some soldiers said was the Army's version of a live news van.

Unlike a news van, the Army's system can text every cell phone in a given area to pass along important information.

In an actual disaster, the soldiers also would likely distribute small radios powered by hand cranks.

That's what happened in Haiti in 2010, when Staff Sgt. Hector Mantilla saw this type of mission firsthand.

As a combat engineer, Mantilla deployed to that country for earthquake relief efforts, long before he joined his current unit, the 9th Military Information Support Battalion.

Mantilla said he vividly recalls the radios and the constant messages to those hit hardest by the quake, reminding them how to avoid disease and danger.

Years later, he was part of a team with a more direct way of sharing information.

Riding up to the village on their Humvee, the soldiers were soon standing atop the vehicle.

With speakers pointed to the town, they repeated messages in English and Spanish, telling locals how to get aid to recover their small businesses.

Staff Sgt. Steven Baker, another soldier assigned to the loudspeaker team, said their job is to reach those that others can't, whether in their Humvee or on foot.

"It's definitely a difficult and challenging mission set," Baker said. "For some people, they wouldn't have the capability to be reached any other way."

Mantilla said while mobility is the key, the unit's biggest asset is themselves.

"We're the face-to-face communication," he said. "That's what makes us versatile. That personal connection with people."

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