When 'The Boys' Are Back In Town: A Special Ops Vet Explains Why Elite Units Train In US Cities

October 22, 2022Joshua Skovlund
the unit

An image depicting American special operations soldiers rappelling from an MH-6 "Little Bird" in Los Angeles during their training exercise held back in 2015. Composite image by Coffee or Die Magazine. Anonymous image source.

Throughout the late summer and early fall, news reports emerged from two US cities of clandestine special operations soldiers flying among skyscrapers and "raiding" local buildings.

In August, black helicopters dove amid the buildings in downtown San Antonio, Texas, as soldiers ran through parking lots wearing quad-tube night vision goggles.

In September, police in Phoenix warned the public that the city and nearby Peoria, Arizona, would be the scene of “air and ground operations” for “essential military training.”

the unit

Green Berets with 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne), land prior to overtaking a vehicle at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, on August 23, 2017. U.S. Army photo by Sergeant 1st Class Iman Broady-Chin.

Though the Army would not confirm what unit was involved, a soldier who spent two decades in the Army’s most secretive Special Missions Unit confirmed to Coffee or Die Magazine a suspicion widely reported in several media outlets — that the exercises were run by his former unit and the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

But why would two of the Army’s premier counterterrorism and flying units need to train in American cities?

The former operator told Coffee or Die it’s all about the training. It grants a chance for elite soldiers to practice their skills in a real city in the US so they’ll be prepared to use those skills in cities elsewhere. It’s referred to as Realistic Urban Training, or RUT. But sometimes, this style of training alarms residents, leading to outlandish rumors about nefarious military operations.'

“It's just the people that do bad things on their behalf to protect them, just running through the motions,” the soldier said. “It's not like — no one's coming for you. It's not a bunch of fucking boogeymen out of Area 51. The boys are just doing some training.”

The training events in San Antonio in August and in Phoenix in September were not unprecedented or even terribly unusual for the two units involved. Similar exercises took place in Los Angeles in 2019 and 2020 and in Phoenix in 2015, among other times and places. Elvia Kelly, a US Army Special Operations Command spokesperson, said units training in “real world” locations like cities provide invaluable experience.

“Training off of a military installation allows an exceptional level of realism while enhancing training value. It is meant to enhance soldiers’ skills by operating in an unfamiliar and realistic environment,” Kelly said. “Training in unfamiliar environments provides Army special operations forces new and different training experiences that help ensure they remain at the highest state of readiness.”

When the two units were in San Antonio in August, social media was full of descriptions and witnesses of the exercises, as were local news reports. So far, no photos or videos have surfaced of the Phoenix training, though there was a warning from local police departments.

Video posted to Twitter of special operations units training in San Antonio.

That’s a sign of success, according to the former operator who spoke to Coffee or Die. It means that the Phoenix exercises went off with a lower public profile, which is always a goal.

For several weeks following the end of the training, the SMU’s planners will scour local news and social media to see how big of an imprint was left on the public, in addition to reviewing the overall exercise. They will then apply the lessons learned to their next training event or deployment.

Every training exercise is different, and depending on the soldiers’ leadership, the lessons learned and takeaways will be different. The unit will drill skills such as hostage rescues, high-value target takedowns, and various other scenarios. Only those in the squad doing the exercise know the details of the training.

The squad leadership designs each training scenario to be extremely difficult so that, if they fail, they can learn from it. Failures in training help soldiers avoid the same mistakes on the battlefield, the NCO said.

“Let's put the guys in the worst situation possible, knowing they might not get this done, but we can learn a whole lot from it,” the NCO said. “So the next five times we do it, if we do it for real, they will get it done.”

The training is well underway before the black helicopters and small-unit operators land in parking lots in the middle of the night. Troops surveil areas ahead of time and plan the direct-action raids, just as they would while deployed.

The units coordinate with local law enforcement and set up a perimeter to keep people away from active “raids.”

“Their job is to keep people out, to keep them safe, and then to keep the boys in and to keep them safe as well,” the soldier said.

During dynamic portions of the training where explosions take place or helicopters are landing, the NCO said there’s “absolutely no chance” someone could walk into the training area.

The secretive units’ exposure isn’t always controllable because the soldiers play it the way they would on a battlefield. As an example, the soldier said, he would rather take his squad through a lit alleyway than lead them through a dark ambush choke point — meaning civilians who happen to be nearby might see them.

And when things blow up on social media, conspiracy theories quickly follow. But the former operator said this wasn’t the first time the soldiers had been seen training in US cities and it wouldn’t be the last.

“It's just motherfuckers doing a fucking training exercise,” the NCO said. “That's literally all it is.”

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Joshua Skovlund
Joshua Skovlund

Joshua Skovlund has covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis that followed the death of George Floyd. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he earned his CrossFit Level 1 certificate and worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. he went on to work in paramedicine for more than five years, much of that time in the North Minneapolis area, before transitioning to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children. His creative outlets include Skovlund Photography and Concentrated Emotion, where he publishes poetry focused on his life experiences.

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