Special Operations News

Robin Sage World's Foremost Unconventional Warfare Exercise Turns 35

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — The “a-ha moment.” It’s the moment of clarity that brings something into sharp focus. For many Special Forces Soldiers, the “a-ha moment” may be a when a Soldier understands that the rigorous training he went through to earn his Green Beret really served a purpose.

Charlie Williams, a retired SF Soldier, had many such moments throughout his career, although one moment stands out in his memory.

“I was in Kenya doing a VETCAP,” recalled Williams, who was assigned to the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion at the time. “We were traveling throughout the country vaccinating the herds. We would be in one village one day and in another the next. We showed up to this village, and there were only 60 camels and a couple of head of cattle and goats. We had expected a lot more than that. Come to find out, the local vet who was supposed to let the village leaders know hadn’t told them.”

What Williams and his team found, in addition to the small herd, was a very angry district chief. The village had recently been attacked by bandits, and the herd was spread out. The chief was mad because no one had told him about the Soldiers’ visit, and his people could not be gathered.

The team went to talk with the chief. Williams, who spoke Swahili, was standing by while his team’s officers spoke through an interpreter. “The chief asked, ‘Are you here to help my people or are you here to tell me you are going to help my people?’ Then he said the answer better be the right one. At that moment, it hit me — this is Robin Sage. I had heard that same question asked by a G-chief, and the team gave the wrong answer, and he made them leave. I knew our team leader better have the right answer,” said Williams.

In that instance, the team leader had the right answer, and Williams’ ability to communicate effectively in the chief’s native tongue built the rapport necessary to ease the chief’s concerns and bring him around to welcoming the team into his village.

“That was a typical scenario in the Robin Sage exercise: rapport building and understanding culture,” said Williams. “If I hadn’t have been aware of the need to do those things, we could have reacted wrong, and he could have thrown us out.”

Williams knows what he’s talking about. Robin Sage, the culiminating exercise of the Special Forces Qualification Course, is turning 35 this year. Williams was participating in the exercise as a member of the auxiliary when it was still Gobbler’s Woods, and he has friends who were participating when it was Cherokee Trail.

The exercise is the foremost unconventional-warfare exercise in the world. It tests a Soldier’s ability to put into practice all of the training he has received during his time at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. It prepares the Soldier for the real world and for encounters with tribal leaders on the savannas of Kenya, the deserts of Iraq, the jungles of South America and the mountains of Afghanistan. But it starts in the small towns of central North Carolina — towns with names like Eldorado, Uwharrie, Robbins, Bennett, Black Ankle and Ellerbe.

Key to the success of the exercise is the participation by civilians who make up the auxiliary force of the Pineland resistance. Williams, a Pineland native who resides in Ellerbe, began participating in the exercise with his brother at the age of 6. His brother, Mike, a detective with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Department, was 8.

“We got involved because we were surrounded by it,” said Charlie. “We woke up one morning, and our yard was full of jeeps, tanks and trucks. They were going to have a major battle in our front yard. There was a machine gun on the corner of our back porch.”

“I remember we begged momma not to make us go to church that morning,” said Mike. “We wanted to see what was going to happen.”

Their begging worked, and the two little boys watched the battle unfold. That was the start of their 40 year association with the exercise, an association that continues today.

Charlie remembers two SF students being dropped off at their farm for a week. The two students, who were doing reconnaissance of the area, stayed in his family’s tobacco barn. “They would come over, and we would make homemade ice cream or eat watermelons,” he said. “Or we would just go over and talk to them.”

That visit made a big impact on the Williams brothers and their friends. They formed their own guerrilla gang to help fight the insurgency. “There were about six of us,” Charley said. “We put together a mixture of civilian and military clothing and put on a red arm band, which showed we were the good guys. We would use firecrackers as weapons because none of us had guns, but late at night when you threw them, they sounded like machine guns. We would ambush tanks and jeeps. They would call in helicopters to chase us down.”

Mike recalls one such event with great clarity. “We were trying to distract them away from the SF students, so we would run out of the woods so they could see us, and the helicopter would come zooming down, and then we would run back in the woods. They would offload and run into the woods to try and find us.”

Sometimes, if it was the only way to keep the real guerrillas and their SF trainers safe, the boys would allow themselves to be caught. It wouldn’t do for one of the SF students to be caught.

“They made a big deal out of that,” said J.B. Carriker, a local farmer who began working with the training in the early ’60s. “They would tie them up and bring them into the jail in town.”

And sometimes, it would fall to the auxiliary to break them out — although neither Williams would confess to taking part in the jail breaks.

“Sometimes they would fill the jail up, and then they would have them tied up on the streets,” said Charlie. “We would do what we could to divert attention away from them.”
That was during the heyday of the exercise, or what locals call “back in the day.” At that time it was more robust, and more people participated. Psychological Operations played a big role in the exercise, with propaganda films being shown on the wall of the town’s only grocery store and wanted posters dotting the landscape. Charley remembers one iteration of the exercise when the PSYOP element created giant billboards of tanks and lined them along the highway. To the students, riding in the back of a truck and taking a quick peek out, it looked like a column of tanks advancing.

“The exercise has changed over the years, just like what’s going on operationally has changed,” said Charlie.

But that doesn’t mean the heart of the exercise has changed — it is still directed at all things unconventional. Charlie has seen just about every possible scenario played out in the exercise and has seen it from a lot of different perspectives — those of a child, a teen and an SF student.

“I knew when I joined the Army that I wanted to be an SF Soldier,” he said. The training came easy to him — he had lived it his whole life. When he showed up at Robin Sage, it was a bit of a surprise to the cadre and the G-chiefs.

“Because I had continued to support Robin Sage after I joined the Army, I knew a lot of instructors, so when I came to Robin Sage, it was interesting.”

At that time, there were two cadre members assigned to every team. One stayed with the team throughout the exercise, the other was the G-chief, and the team didn’t mee
t him until they had infilled into Pineland. Today the G-chiefs are contractors who are usually retired SF Soldiers.

“My team was down in the Derby area (which isn’t far from Ellerbe), the G-chief was Larry Rivers,” said Charlie. “It was a typical G-chief meeting. He had us lined up and was giving us his speech, and then he came to me. He said, ‘Damn, everybody gather round. You can thank Charlie Williams for this — and then he made us all give our classes and go ahead with our missions. He knew that I knew everything about Robin Sage.”

And knowing everything about Robin Sage, Charlie is able to recognize the way the exercise has transformed over the years.

“It’s scaled back some, but there is still a lot of civilian interaction. It has changed from what it was back in the day. It’s a lot better training environment. Back in the day, there was a lot more going on, and it was good for that time, but what we’re doing now is good for now.”

He pointed out that in the pre-9/11 days, Robin Sage was as much of a training event for the conventional Army as it was for the Special Forces students. The conventional Soldiers would be red-cycled — tasked to play the enemy and some of the guerrilla forces — so they were able to train in their tactics, techniques and procedures at the same time. With the current operations tempo, there are fewer G-forces, but the training is as intensive.

“We are constantly re-evaluating what we’re doing, making sure what we are training isn’t just doctrine, it is also relevant to what is going on around the world,” Charlie said, “because most of these guys will leave this exercise, go to a group and then deploy to the front line. Everything we do is to make sure that these guys are ready.”

One key element that has changed since the Williams’ early participation is the use of technology. “When I was a child, there were no computers used on the team level, so we have to work very hard to incorporate technology into our scenarios,” he continued. “The students tend to forget they have the technology available to them and don’t use it in the scenarios. I tell them it’s like a carpenter going to build something and forgetting his tool box — I tell them to open up their tool box.”

He related one such instance concerning the signing of the Pineland loyalty oath. The oath is carried into Pineland by the SF students, who are required to get the local citizenry and G-forces to sign it. They then have to transmit the signed oaths back to headquarters. Williams questioned the Soldiers as to how they would secure the oaths, because if the names of the families who signed it were found by the enemy, their lives would be in danger.

“They told me they were going to have an airplane fly in and fly it out. I had to bring them back to reality a bit and explained that once the oath left their hands, it was unsecure. The plane could be shot down. I asked them about taking a picture and sending it back through the airwaves. They were forgetting the basics,” he continued. “We have to push them in that direction, because when they get downrange, they are going to have to use that technology.”

The students were and still are tested with scenarios that deal with the human element: How do you treat civilians in your area of operations? When the Williams boys were still children, they participated in a scenario that dealt with that question.

“Me and Charlie were little, and they took us down into the camp and told the team that our house had burned down, and our parents were killed, and we were refugees that they needed to protect,” recalled Mike. “They left us with the team all day to see how they would interact with us and treat us. At the same time, they told us to try and get everything we could from them. We left there with a sack full of stuff — we had everything from canteen cups to ammo.”

Later Charlie would use his own children in just that kind of test. “My little boy was four or five, and I took him out to the camp. I pointed out a Soldier and had him go up to him. My little boy had a grenade in his hand. We wanted to see how the Soldier would react, because not only was the little boy in danger, but the whole camp was in danger,” he explained. “The Soldier was pretty squared away. He asked my boy what he had, and my son said, ‘A ball.’ He then asked if he could hold it, and my little boy let him. He asked him where he got it, and if there was any more. Not only did he secure the grenade, he also gathered intelligence.”

As his son grew, he took a more active role in the scenarios. During one of those scenarios, Charlie, who was acting as a G-chief, was overwhelmed by the amount of thought one of the students put into the situation. “That was one of the days when I was really proud of a student. I knew he would be a great SF Soldier,” he said.

The student in question was a medic who was the acting intelligence sergeant. When Williams’ son volunteered to go on a mission, the Soldier, who was not slated to go on the mission, went along.

“My son came back, and I asked him how it went, and he was mad. He said he couldn’t do anything because that Soldier had kept him pinned down to the earth until the shooting stopped. The Soldier thought protecting my son was part of the scenario. He didn’t want to have to face me, if he let something happen to my son,” he continued. “That’s something that happens in the real world all the time. That wasn’t part of the scenario, but the fact that the Soldier was thinking strategically told me he would be a good SF Soldier.”

Some of the scenarios are complex to set up. Take the scenario surrounding a prisoner snatch as an example. The prisoner-snatch scenario requires the cooperation and full interaction of a host of local officials. The fire department, the rescue squad and the police department all participate. The G-force comes up with a plan to snatch an important enemy target. The SF students have to coordinate, plan and ultimately carry out the plan. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but the participation by local officials makes the scenario more realistic.

On a recent iteration, the scenario didn’t play out the way it should have. The students were supposed to snatch a high-value target from the general store in Norman. They made it to the store and were waiting for the target to arrive. Instead, Mike, who plays a double agent in the exercise, showed up. He was there to support the team, but his presence threw them off their game.

“I walked by and said ‘Hey’ at least three times,” said Mike. “I had sat across from them in the meeting the night before, planning the take-down. All they had to do was talk to me. But they got scared and left. So I took the target down myself and carried him into the camp.”

It was what they call “a learning moment” for the students. “They knew I worked both sides of the fence so I could funnel the guerrillas intelligence,” he explained. “I’m Mike the intel guy. My being there totally freaked them out, but really I was there to help them.”

For Gina Elbertson, a Denton native who has been working with the exercise for the past six years, there are many learning lessons. Elbertson’s main role is as a driver who helps get the students where they need to be. But she has been known to wear other hats. Sometimes she goes and spies for the students. Other times she picks up a weapon and defends them. She noted that the skills of the Soldiers in the classes vary from class to class, and that it is hard to watch students struggle with a scenario.

“I really want to help them and point them in the right direction,” she explained. “But I know they have to figure this out for themselves. When they are overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody is going to be looking out for them like that.”

Elberson became involved in the exercise after she met some of the cadre and G-chiefs at the Eldorado Outpost. “I asked them what they were doing and they explained,” she continued. “My sons love the Army, so they let me bring them up and see the camp.”

She was so impressed by what she saw that she volunteered to help out. In fact, prior to being laid off from her job, she would take vacation days to come out and help. Elbertson, like many members of the auxiliary, believes in giving her all to the exercise. She brings her camper down and camps out at the cadre camp for the duration of the exercise. She’s available to run missions morning, noon or night. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 3 a.m. or freezing, if they need to go, I’m going to get them there,” she said.

And sometimes, that 20-minute mission may turn into a four- or five-hour mission, because the students have to use their skills to tell Elberson where they need to go. A recent district meeting that should have taken 45 minutes wound up taking several hours because the students couldn’t find their way. Sitting on a rock at the opening of the Coggins Gold Mine, Elbertson was philosophical about the wait. “I brought enough clothes to stay warm and snacks to eat,” she said. “They’ll get here when they can.”

Another member of the auxiliary, Bill “ZZ” Lowder, was also on hand at that meeting. Lowder, of Stanley County, has been working with the exercise for the past 10 years. He, like many who are involved in the support of the exercise, sees his involvement as a way to do his part for his nation. “I had a brother in the military, but I never was,” he said. “I see this as a way to serve my country.”

That sense of patriotism is one of the reasons the exercise has endured in central North Carolina. Local residents, who sometimes find the sound of gunfire annoying and who may get surprised by armed men darting across the road, are, for the most part, very supportive of the exercise — even though they might not really understand what is going on.

Bruce Reeves, a resident of Eldorado in Montgomery County, has been involved in the exercise for more than 25 years. He is constantly amazed by the people who question what the military is doing. “It’s in the newspaper and on the radio, and it’s been going on for years,” he said. “But people don’t understand what happens. It’s pretty weird. I try to explain it to them, but you still have those people who get upset because they lost a night’s sleep because of the gunfire. I tell them that if they want to be free and sleep in their beds, then this is what it’s going to take.

“A lot people scream about the fact that we need to do more for the Soldiers, well, we have this great opportunity. We don’t have to scream about it, we can just come out here and support them,” he continued. “Because everything we do here is aimed at making sure they make it home. I’ve been around these guys since I was a teenager, and I can tell you, they are my heroes.”

For the students, it might not always seem that way. Reeves and a band of about 18 others are the opposing force, or OPFOR, for the exercise. In short, they are the enemy, called Cobra, that the SF students are trying to defeat. In Reeves current role as the Cobra commander, he doesn’t get to develop the personal relationship with the students that many in the auxiliary do. “My job is to frustrate them — to challenge them,” he said.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the early ’80s when Reeves was just a kid, he and his friends would go camping in the woods that straddle the Montgomery/Randolph county line. “We’d be going through the woods and run up on these guys. We thought it was cool,” he said. “So whenever the Army came back into town, we’d go out and bring them food or check out bridges for them and bring back information. We spied for them and helped them out when we could.”

Throughout his teen years, Reeves had that one-on-one relationship with the students. He stopped working with the exercise for a couple of years, but since he started back, he’s been going full blast.

The Cobra unit Reeves heads up is a unique civilian organization. The 18 members meet regularly to drill. They learn tactics and techniques and study the way SF fights. By having the civilian OPFOR, the Robin Sage cadre doesn’t have to pull red-cycle Soldiers from the G-camps to serve with Cobra. That allows the SF students to spend more time training a larger G-force, and training is one of an SF Soldier’s primary functions.

“We are just another tool in the training,” said Reeves. “We work hard to make it more challenging for the students. We’re not here to make it easy for them. We challenge them as much as we can, and we make it as realistic as we can, because maybe something we do here will help them come back home.

He noted that when he first started, the exercise and the training were geared more toward a big war, but the training now reflects the current fighting environment, and the students are focused on the unconventional aspects of fighting insurgents. “The exercise has really gotten better in that respect,” he said.

He noted that often the SF students have to talk the guerrillas out of committing war crimes. “I was captured one time down near the Coast Guard station,” he said. “It was a big deal because I am the Cobra commander. ZZ wanted to shoot me, and the students had to talk him out of it. For the guerrillas, killing a captured prisoner wasn’t a big deal, but the SF students had to get them to understand that it was. These are the kinds of things they run into all the time in the real world.”

Both Reeves and Elberson have had the chance to talk with students who have deployed and come back to Robin Sage. “Sometimes they just stop by,” said Elbertson. “They have come back and said they remember when something we did here helped them over there. And that makes it all worthwhile.”

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