In recent days, Pat Calhoun has found himself reassuring jittery residents of Goliad County that there is nothing to fear about Jade Helm 15, a planned military training exercise that has become a fascination of conspiracy theorists.
A retired Marine, the county judge has taken part in similar operations and knows the drill — literally.
"I know what's going on with this," Calhoun said Thursday. "You don't have anything to be afraid of in our military."
The two-month simulation, slated to begin in July in states throughout the Southwest, has nonetheless spooked some Texans, leaving local officials scrambling to assuage constituent anxieties about an operation even the military characterizes as unusual in its "size and scope." On Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott elevated those concerns with a letter asking the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on the operation, whose skeptics have openly questioned whether it as a covert effort to institute martial law.
“During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed," Abbott wrote to Maj. Gen. Gerald Betty, saying he expects "regular updates on the progress and safety of the Operation."
Abbott's letter came the day after Bastrop County residents reportedly packed an information session on Jade Helm 15, quizzing a military spokesman about it while clutching signs with ominous messages such as, "No Gestapo in Bastropo." Among the concerned citizens who turned out: Kathie Glass, a long-shot candidate for governor last year who campaigned against an "increasingly tyrannical federal government."
"I don't buy into some of the more extravagant claims, but I think it is not routine and it needs to be addressed, and the people need to be comforted," Glass said of Jade Helm 15. She applauded Abbott for shining a spotlight on the issue, saying that before he weighed in, most "people had never heard about it."
Outside the Lone Star State, though, Abbott's move has drawn more skepticism and fueled a perception -- an incorrect one, his office would say — that he is lending more credibility than deserved to a cause mostly driven by Internet rumors. Asked Wednesday about Abbott's involvement, White House press secretary Josh Earnest responded over fits of laughter from reporters in the room.
"I have no idea what he's thinking," Earnest said of Abbott, adding that the operation will "in no way" affect the civil liberties or constitutional rights of Americans.
The episode has even drawn former Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst out of a relative public silence since leaving office in January. In an op-ed published late Thursday by The Dallas Morning News, Dewhurst evoked the anti-military sentiment surrounding the Vietnam War while arguing troops should be “greeted by a freshly-swept welcome mat, not suspicion and angry protest.”
“Unfortunately, some Texans have projected their legitimate concerns about the competence and trustworthiness of President Barack Obama onto these noble warriors,” wrote Dewhurst, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. “This must stop.”
Another attention-grabbing response to Abbott's letter came earlier Thursday, when former state Rep. Todd Smith, R-Euless, sent a scathing missive to Abbott accusing him of "pandering to idiots." Smith, who served in the Legislature for 16 years, told Abbott he was "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 am appalled that you would give credence to the nonsense mouthed by those who instead make decisions based on Internet or radio shock jock driven hysteria," Smith wrote in the letter, which he also sent to the House and Senate. "Is there ANYBODY who is going to stand up to this radical nonsense that is cancer on our State and Party?"
Abbott's office has maintained he entered the fray simply in response to concerns raised in public meetings, news reports and correspondence with constituents. And his aides have turned back criticism — mainly from political opponents — that the move shows a distrust of the armed forces, saying he "deeply trusts and respects the United States Military."
While it made the issue more visible than ever, Abbott's letter did not mark the first time Jade Helm 15 caught the attention of an elected official with a national platform. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican running for president in 2016, said earlier this month he occasionally hears about the operation while traveling and would "look at" it to learn more. On Thursday his father, Ron Paul — the former longtime congressman from Lake Jackson — took to his self-titled "Liberty Report" to applaud Abbott for stepping in.
"We know that people have been talking about this for a while, but all of a sudden it is everywhere because of the governor of Texas and what he did," said Paul, a libertarian icon. "It sounds like he's sympathizing with people who have great concerns with federal takeovers."
Among those outside political arena, Abbott's move has garnered less praise. A number of military experts offered somewhat puzzled reactions Thursday.
"It seems like a lot of ado about nothing," said Michael Hunzeker, a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University and a major in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. He agreed with others that it was interesting, if not unusual, for a sitting governor to weigh in on the issue the way Abbott chose to.
A day after Abbott publicized his letter, word spread that the operation had been nixed in some counties in Texas, though local officials were reluctant to attribute the development to recent scrutiny. Lt. Thomas Eisman of the Victoria County sheriff's office said Thursday evening he was informed "earlier this week" Jade Helm 15 had been canceled in the county on the coastal plain. No reason was given, he added, and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command did not respond earlier Thursday to a request for comment on the situation.
Goliad County was another area where Jade Helm 15 was said to be nixed, though Calhoun could not confirm it Thursday. While he waits for an official announcement, he said he is having a familiar conversation with concerned residents.
"I'm a retired Marine," Calhoun said he is telling them. "Do you really think we're going to let something happen to our hometown? No, of course not."