Additional details are emerging about the helicopter-based military training that was conducted the night of Monday, June 7, in the city of Bloomington.
The geographic focus of the exercise was 1730 S. Walnut, site of the former Night Moves strip club, and future site of a city-supported affordable housing development, on the eastern edge of Switchyard Park.
The US Army had been working with the city of Bloomington since mid-April of this year to coordinate the training exercise, according to Elise Van Pool, who is deputy public affairs officer with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
The June 7 training exercise—which included helicopters flying low enough to rattle houses and loud bangs that kept residents awake through the early morning hours—centered on the eastern edge of Switchyard Park. About 100 soldiers, including planners and support personnel, were involved, according to Van Pool.
The Square Beacon asked the Bloomington mayor’s office questions about permissions that might have been given by the city of Bloomington for the US Army exercise on Tuesday.
The response from the mayor’s office stated: “This was not a City training exercise, and the City cannot accurately characterize the required permissions.” The Bloomington mayor’s office response added, “The City cannot prohibit the federal government from conducting a training exercise.”
Responding to questions about permissions, Van Pool told The Square Beacon, “[The US Army] really couldn’t do this type of training without the support of local leaders in law enforcement.” She added, “We certainly wouldn’t go into a building to which we weren’t invited. That would be trespassing.”
The written response from Van Pool confirmed: “This training was coordinated with city officials and local law enforcement. We cannot conduct this important training without their support.”
In a Tweet on Tuesday, the city of Bloomington said, “The Office of the Mayor was aware of Monday night’s national security exercise and was notified ahead of time.”
In an email to The Square Beacon, Van Pool wrote that “We have been working with the city since mid-April of this year.”
The Square Beacon asked Van Pool about the contrast between the city of Bloomington’s approach, which was not to use any social media to alert the public ahead of time, and the Monroe County sheriff’s approach on the following day, which was to post information on Facebook a few hours before some military training began in Richland and Bean Blossom townships.
Van Pool said, in her 15 years of doing public affairs work for the government, working with local officials to communicate about training impacts like noise and vibration is something they handle “at all levels”.
How early or late to notify the public, Van Pool said, depends on the type of training. “One of the calculations we have to make is maintaining the safety of the exercise,” she said. “If we put out information too early or too much, then you get the ‘looky-loos’ who are like, ‘Oh, let’s see what the Army is up to!’”
Curious public could “unknowingly jeopardize the safety of the exercise by getting in the way.” Van Pool said.
The noise associated with the exercise came as a shock to many residents—especially those who were not in the area where advance door-to-door notification took place. Flyers were left behind, for those who did not answer a knock at the door, according to the information provided by Van Pool.
Van Pool confirmed that the images of flyers posted on social media networks were the flyers that were provided by the US Army to Bloomington police officers.
According to Van Pool, “BPD officers conducted notifications door-to-door Monday evening to residents and businesses in the area immediately surrounding the training location. These notices were left behind at locations that officers did not receive an answer.”
According to the city of Bloomington, “We assigned no officers to this training last night. Only off-duty law enforcement personnel could have been utilized. Any BPD personnel were paid by the federal government.”
How big an area was notified? Van Pool’s response described generally how that is determined. “There are multiple factors that dictate how an individual on the ground can experience training-related impacts such as noise and vibration,” she wrote.
Among the factors affecting the impact of the training on people are the weather, the terrain, and building types and heights. The response concluded, “As each training site is unique, we make a determination at each site how broad of an area to notify in person.”
Not getting a door knock or a flyer was Nile Arena, who lives on the west side of Switchyard Park, a little under a half mile away from 1730 S. Walnut, which was the geographic focus of some of the training activities.
Arena wrote in an email message to The Square Beacon, “The helicopters were so loud and so near that they snapped branches off of trees.”
Arena added, “The gunfire (or, I guess, simulated gunfire) was so nearby and loud it kept me awake all night. No one in my neighborhood received flyers or any advance warning.”
In her responses to The Square Beacon, Van Pool confirmed that there were four US Army helicopters involved in the operation, but could not name the type, “due to operational security concerns.”
The helicopters appear to have been a key part of the training goal for the exercise, which Van Pool described as “flight operations and close quarter battle training.”
About the choice of Bloomington as a site of training operations, Van Pool said the key attribute was: It’s not the same as the training facility used by US Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Van Pool elaborated: “We do have training facilities on post that mimic an urban area, but after you’ve been through those training lines so many times, the training value goes down.” She added, “It’s basically like playing the same video game over and over again. After a while, you’ve beaten the game.”
Asked about the idea that training in urban settings would put soldiers in a position to put down civil unrest in this country, Van Pool said they would have no legal authority to do that. Van Pool said, “We would not be the ones to respond to civil unrest—just because there are very strict laws that govern it.” She continued, “We’re technically classified as what are called Title 10 forces. Under Title 10, we cannot engage in any sort of law enforcement activity.”
What is the value of training in an urban environment like Bloomington, Indiana? According to Van Pool, ”It’s really helped us to be able to experience new and different training environments so that when we do go overseas—and we’re presented with something that we haven’t necessarily seen before—soldiers have enough experience and practice to be able to adjust on the fly.”
Van Pool is still checking into the possible history of similar training events in Bloomington.
Can Bloomington residents expect a repeat of Monday’s training exercise anytime in the future? Van Pool said, “I don’t know if we’ll ever come back to Bloomington.” She said she had not yet spoken with those who led the training exercise, so she could not characterize whether they thought the June 7 training in Bloomington was a success.
Van Pool wrapped up with apologies and appreciation: “We would like to definitely reiterate that we apologize…for the impacts of the experience.” She also stressed the importance of such training: “This is really important training and this really does contribute very much to our readiness and our ability to conduct the missions that we’re asked to conduct.”
She added, “The community is very much appreciated on our end. And I don’t think that folks should underestimate that.”
Responses form US Army public affairs
Q1. How many and what types of aircraft were involved?
A1. Four U.S. Army helicopters. Due to operational security concerns we cannot confirm the type of platform used.
Q2. How many members of the military were involved in the training exercise?
A2. About 100 soldiers, including planners and support personnel.
Q3. Where is the home base for the members of the military who were involved in the training exercise?
A3. All service members involved in this training are assigned to U.S. Army Special Operations Command. USASOC headquarters is located at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Q4. What was the goal of the training exercise?
A4. Soldiers were conducting flight operations and close quarter battle training. By honing these skills, Soldiers are better prepared for a variety of missions they may carry out answering our Nation’s call.
Q5. Does the US military have to ask permission of the city of Bloomington to conduct such a training exercise, or is it more like a notification that the military is exercising its right to train?
A5. This training was coordinated with city officials and local law enforcement. We cannot conduct this important training without their support.
Q6. When was the request/notification to the city of Bloomington about the training exercise made?
A6. These exercises take many months to plan and coordinate. We have been in coordination with the City of Bloomington for many months. We could not conduct this important training without the support of local government and law enforcement agencies. They are critical partners whose contributions are an important part of maintaining our readiness.
Q7. Can you confirm that the attached image was, in fact, a flyer distributed by US Army about the training exercise?
A7. Our service members provided this flyer to the Bloomington Police Department. BPD officers conducted notifications door-to-door Monday evening to residents and businesses in the area immediately surrounding the training location. These notices were left behind at locations that officers did not receive an answer.
Q8. In how broad an area (e.g. how many residences/businesses were flyered) were the flyers distributed?
A8. Notification was given to those deemed necessary based off assessments done prior to training. There are multiple factors that dictate how an individual on the ground can experience training related impacts such as noise and vibration. These factors include the weather, the undulation of the earth and the types of buildings and building heights that are in the area. As each training site is unique we make a determination at each site how broad of an area to notify in person.
Q9. Is there a history of such training exercises held in Bloomington?
A9. We are checking our records to see if there has been previous training by a USASOC unit in that area. We would not have records of training events conducted by other Army units like the National Guard.