The exercise, according to Army Lt. David Reyes, was part of a three-day military training and morale booster focusing on physical challenges.
At 7 p.m., the soldiers, recently back from fighting in Iraq, disembarked from buses at the El Pomar Youth Sports Center in south Colorado Springs. From there, they began a 25-mile march northwest, up the Pikes Peak Greenway trail to just shy of Woodmen Road, and then back.
The first-time exercise, Reyes says, was not designed as an urban or tactical training stratagem in the event of, say, martial law resulting in the U.S. military invading a domestic city. After all, even the Pentagon's homeland defense strategy clearly states that "domestic security is primarily a civilian law enforcement function."
"I hope that's not the idea that people are getting," Reyes says. "It was mostly just to get off post and get off base for a change of scenery. We did it at night, and so we didn't expect to encounter many people."
So what's the problem?
Let's start with this: The only people in city government who were notified about the U.S. Army's nighttime training inside city limits were two employees in the Parks & Recreation Department. They approved the nonexclusive use of the trail with the condition that the soldiers' rifles not be loaded. They told their boss, Paul Butcher, who did not bother to tell his boss, City Manager Lorne Kramer, of the planned exercise. And so, of course, Kramer, a former chief of police, could not have determined whether this was something his bosses, the city councilors, needed a heads-up on.
Says Butcher: "We didn't see this as a significant issue." In fact, he compares the military training exercise to a group of bicyclists seeking use of the city's park system, of which he also would not notify his boss. "I trust that our citizens would see a group of men walking down a path and not consider it an attack."
(Never mind that this "group" was outfitted in full camo and gear, toting M-16 rifles.)
Lt. Reyes says the Parks & Rec employees assured him that they would inform the local authorities about the planned military exercise.
And that never happened. "The police department was not aware of this and didn't need to be, according to people I talked to," says city spokeswoman Sue Blumberg. Further, Blumberg reports that a review of the police log shows that absolutely no one in Colorado Springs called the cops to report that 70 armed soldiers were conducting an eight-hour march though the city.
Now this doesn't sound right, and it isn't. Not long after the march began, Lt. Reyes notes, "somebody did call the police." In concert with a police helicopter hovering above, two squad cars arrived. "They talked to one of our guys and found out we were just conducting training," Reyes says. The local cops dutifully dispatched the information to the rest of the on-duty officers, and the march proceeded without incident.
We can only imagine a scenario involving a handful of responding police officers not just taking the word of 70 empty-M-16-totin' soldiers ...
But let's not get hysterical.
"I guess I don't understand why it had to be such a secret," says City Councilman Jerry Heimlicher. At the very least, he says, the police department, as well as City Manager Kramer, should have been notified in advance that U.S. Army soldiers were training within city limits.
Maybe in the future, that sort of important communication will occur. As Lt. Reyes puts it, "We're hoping to conduct these more often, because Colorado Springs is such a nice city, with its parks and all."
And that brings us to the bottom line. Fort Carson is massive, larger, in fact, than all of Colorado Springs' 192 square miles. The Army post's Web site boasts that its 138,523 acres "can accommodate a wide variety of training ... There are open prairies and heavily forested areas. There are lowlands, wetlands and creek drainages as well as mountainous, and hilly areas."
Why, exactly, do they need a change of scenery?