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Mock war, real snafu

by Katherine Dougan


Friday evening the Williams family sat down in their Oxford living room and popped a movie into the VCR. Then the power went off — a total blackout in all the neighborhoods surrounding the Anniston Municipal Airport in Oxford — and what sounded like a war began outside.

“We know we live near the airport, so we expect some noise. But we don’t expect a war to be going on right next door to us,” said Debbie Williams of Lane Ave. in Oxford. “A big explosion went off, and our couches were vibrating — everything in the house vibrated.”

Ms. Williams and some other residents near the airport received no notification that Army Special Forces were going to be conducting wargames at the airport and Alabama Power was going to cut off their electricity.

The Army didn’t even notify the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Larry Amerson said. Oxford and Anniston police were notified.

Residents near the airport heard what sounded like machine gun fire, saw the fiery-red flash of explosions, and saw silhouettes of what looked like paratroopers dropping out of the darkened skies.

Louise Strope, who also lives on Oxford’s Lane Ave., got no notice. She said her pet monkeys were nearly apoplectic because of the noise.

“Not knowing anything was the biggest thing,” she said. “If I’d known, I could have got them sedated.”

The “invasion” was part of a special training operation conducted in Anniston, at Fort McClellan and at the airport in Oxford from Tuesday until the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Hershal Chapman, a public affairs officer at Fort McClellan, said he “put out a public service announcement to all media outlets saying there would be noise.”

But that statement did not mention how extensive the operation would be, that part of it would be conducted at the airport, or that residents’ power would be cut off.

Barbara Ashley, from the public affairs office at Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., said the operation involved about 800 soldiers, from the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning and the 160th Special Operation Aviation Regiment from Fort Campbell.

Ms. Ashley was concerned to learn that the word about the operation didn’t get out.

“I thought people were going to be notified,” said Ms. Ashley. “I know sometimes it is a problem and it does upset the citizens, and that’s one thing we try to avoid.”

She said the Army does exercises like this “to give the rangers, Air Force special operations and the 160th opportunities to experience training in new and different environments. It adds to the realism of the exercise as real-world missions are in environments unfamiliar to our soldiers.”

Alabama Power’s Buddy Eiland said the utility received a request from the military to cut the power off for about 1-1/2 hours on Friday evening. Residents said the power went off at 8 p.m. Friday and returned about 10 p.m.

“We sent out a notice to about 300 or so customers in that area that were affected,” Eiland said. “Some of them did come back with address problems, so there may have been a few people who were not aware of it.”

The notice that Alabama Power sent out said that the power would be cut off “to perform work on the power lines.” Eiland said it was a standard notice and that’s why he thought it did not mention the real reason for the power being cut off.

Marshall Shaddix, an Oxford City Councilman, said both the Army and Alabama Power should have done a better job of notifying people.

“I don’t feel it’s right,” he said. “They should let them know....If I lived over there I’d sure like to be notified.”

Paul Street, of Anniston Executive Aviation, said the airport was closed to the public during the entire operation.

“We’ve had to close it before. It’s not an out-of-the-ordinary thing at all,” said Street.

The word about the airport being closed was sent out in the form of a “notice to airmen,” which they receive via computers and as part of a preflight weather briefing. It is available to all air traffic en route.

“When people are making flight plans, you generally call the flight service station and they give you anything that might be going on at a particular airport,” said Street.

What if a plane needed to make an emergency landing while the exercises were under way?

“First off — they wouldn’t have been able to land — the airport was not available,” said R. Gmerek, a supervisor at the Anniston Automated Flight Service Station, which is operated by the Federal Aviation Authority. “But with Talladega (airport) and Gadsden as close as they are, I can’t fathom where Anniston would be the only resort.”

Becky Feazell, who lives near the airport, said there was obviously a lot of planning that the military put into this operation.

“Other people obviously knew,” she said and just wishes someone could have told her.

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