Back in 2006, when I was in Psychological Operations Group (Now called MISOG, or Military Information Support Group), I remember a colleague of mind dryly comment that we were the “red-headed stepchildren of SOCOM.” As such we would frequently be tasked to send personnel for an all-paid, all-exclusive trip to the hills of rural North Carolina to support the Special Forces Qualification Course exercise, widely know as Robin Sage.

War and peace

If you don’t know, Robin Sage is a U.S. Army SFQC that tests prospective Green Beret students on everything they have learned from their months of intensive training (an article on it can be found here). The object is to create an exercise as close to real-life scenarios as possible, which means touching down in a rural civilian area that harbors friendly guerrilla forces who busily train and generally cause a ruckus. By now you probably have a good idea what it’s like from an SF perspective. But what about from a role-player’s point of view? You’re in luck; I got to be one of them.

They run Robin Sage several times throughout the year, but of course I ended up being sent during the tail end of winter. At the time, I had little clue what this entailed. Mostly, I figured it meant a chance to get away for two weeks, stumbling around in the dark to find that perfect place to take a shit in 30° weather.

Only a few of us from the battalion were sent to the training this time (I think a total of three of us), but to be fair, it was the height of the Iraq War and we were a little thin at the time. Joining a few other soldiers from around Bragg, we were bussed to Camp MacKall, a training ground in close proximity to Bragg, to rendezvous with the rest of the support staff. We received brief instruction on what we were doing, a very fluid timeline, and assignments to where we were to end up. We were divided up among opposition forces (OPFOR) and guerrilla forces. I ended up in the latter. I also remember the letterhead we all received, just in case we were ever pulled over by local law enforcement during the course of the exercise. The letter would provide them with explanation for why a bunch of ragtag-looking men were running around with assault rifles and fake explosives. We were also given a couple of dollars in fake money called “Don” (I think) that could be used during the scenario with participating individuals and locations. I don’t recall ever needing to use my Monopoly money.

For any soldier who didn’t bring their assigned rifle with them, they were issued one from the armory. Most seem to get a ratty, beat-to-hell AK-style rifle. People swear by AKs, and always say they will be the only rifle that can last throughout the apocalypse. Maybe so, but not these ones. These looked terrible and functioned even worse. Even operating the bolt on one of these was gritty and temperamental. We were also given blank ammunition for our respective rifles. I ended up falling in with a group of 10th Mountain Division soldiers who, for some reason, the Army decided to pull from Fort Drum, New York to support this exercise. I guess my unit wasn’t the only one looking thin at the time.

We changed out our military BDUs for black fatigues that made us all look like a bunch of ninja rejects. We climbed into flatbed trucks that were fully covered in the back, probably so that we wouldn’t alert locals at a passing glance. We rode in the back in covered darkness for a couple of hours. It was toward the early part of the afternoon before we stopped off at a rural convenience store for a pit stop and last-minute run on pogey bait and other supplies. After that was over, we continued our road trip until we came to a stop at the bottom of a trail deep in the forest. We all disembarked and were told to take our supplies, gear, and weapons all the way up the hill. I swear it was the biggest hill in North Carolina at the time, because going up and down over the course of two weeks didn’t get any easier.

Paradise lost

We made our way to the top, where we were greeted by a clearing with rudimentary shelters and a center communal area with a flagpole in the middle. An old, bearded man emerged from a tent to greet us, and told us to refer to him as the tribal chieftain, or “Habu.” He was a former Green Beret and was one of the instructors/evaluators. He kind of reminded me of a cross between Yoda, Gandalf, and Santa Claus. He would spend most of his time with us, prepping us to support the incoming SF candidates. First thing we needed was a name, since we were ditching rank and it was more conducive to our roles as guerrilla fighters. I picked the name “Taro” for reasons that escape me to this day. The second thing we needed was a story or reason why we decided to join the rebellion. We rattled off our story one by one. We got halfway through the circle when Habu stopped us.

“You know, not every story has to end with someone’s loved one being killed or raped. Let’s come up with some new back stories here,” he said.

I quickly had to come up with another back story.

That didn’t mean we did away with authority in its entirety. The senior NCO of the group, an SFC, was the de facto person in charge of us during the exercise. I was actually impressed with him; he came across as both a consummate soldier and an educated man. During any free time, when we bantered about politics or philosophy, he would always seem to take what we were saying and make reference to a historical figure or historian. He also ensured we kept some degree of military bearing, enforcing attendance and weapons accountability.

We also went over some of the rules for the exercise. For one, we were supposed to act distant from the candidates during the exercise to simulate initial distrust. Second, we were supposed to act like a guerrilla group, not U.S. soldiers. We were fine with that, but sometimes I think the instructors forgot that themselves. For example, on our first mission, we were tromping through the woods in a haphazard and loud manner. Under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t have done this, but hey, we were supposed to be undisciplined freedom fighters. And the candidates didn’t correct us. But after some time, one of the instructors stopped us and began to yell at the candidates for leading us through the forest so poorly. Then he proceeded to rip into the rest of us for “not being disciplined, and as soldiers, we should know better.”

I thought that was the point, that we weren’t supposed to act like soldiers.

Fellow “guerrilla” fighters settle in for a meal | Image courtesy of the author

Another interesting thing Habu brought up was the issue of food. He had hidden boxes of MREs for us to eat during the exercise, but the SF candidates were supposed to help us secure food. If they failed to do this, they would go hungry accordingly. But we could dig into our hidden cache if needed. Water was tricky though; we had to trek down the hill and march a few miles to a civilian’s home and use their water hose so we could fill up our five-gallon water jugs. Each time we approached the house, two dogs would come running out barking to “greet” us. The home was owned by a retired couple. The husband was a WWII veteran who spent his combat tour of duty in France after the Normandy invasion. They would occasionally come out to greet us and chat. After that was done, we strapped on our five-gallon water jugs and trekked up the hill once again. We would have to do this every morning, sometimes even twice a day, depending on circumstances. There was a stream, and we always had to cross using a makeshift bridge of fallen trees and old logs. I only mention this because, on one of the trips back, I slipped off and plunged into the icy cold stream with the full five-gallon jug of water in tow.

Finally, Habu went over the schedule for the upcoming days. He also showed us the “pledge of allegiance” of Pineland, which we would recite almost every morning during the flag-raising ceremony. He also went over a brief history of Pineland, and the history behind why we were fighting. I wondered if the next step was to call our resistance group “Wolverines,” but alas, it didn’t happen.

Since we had a few days before the candidates came in, we prepped our “hideout” on top of the hill. Luckily, we could build fires because it was still cold during the night, being late February. But the problem with fires is that they require wood, and we were on private land. We couldn’t cut down standing trees, we could only use fallen wood. On top of that, it was perpetually damp—it rained frequently during the exercise. There’s nothing more annoying than spending a good part of your day gathering wood that would barely get you through the night.

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Great expectations

After a couple of days, we were finally able to rendezvous with the SF candidates and start to get to work. Much of the time was spent securing a base of operations for them, going on missions, and attending “classes” taught by them on a variety of different topics. By this time, we also established guard schedules, both static and roaming. Due to limited personnel, we only guarded one position most of the time—the main entrance to our base at the top of the hill. It was a good spot; we could almost see all the way down to the foothills. At night, we had to rely on only one spare night vision goggle loaned to us by the SF candidates. What better way to spend your cold nights staring at a seemingly lifeless forest through a green hue with no sounds except your own breath? Every time I had to pull night duty, I thought it was the most opportune time for OPFOR to launch an attack. They never did. I guess they forgot we were there, which seemed to validate my vivid imagination and my perception that I was the last person on Earth.

But we were still exposed from other directions. We had two civilians riding ATVs stumble into our base one day. I can only imagine their reaction when they came across a bunch of men with M-16s and AKs wearing black fatigues, planning something in the middle of the woods. Habu went out to talk to them, and afterwards, they took off in the opposite direction, seemingly without any issues. I wasn’t 100 percent sure how much the locals were told of the Robin Sage exercises going on. I always figured they were generally aware SF training was going on, but individual reactions may still vary.

Usually, we trekked everywhere on foot to get to our assigned mission. Sometimes, the objective was too far away to get to in a timely manner and we would have to use vehicles. In order to not draw public attention, we normally crawled into the flatbed of a civilian pickup truck and covered ourselves with a large tarp. We never had any problems, but I wonder how a police officer would react if he ever pulled over the truck and found us all hiding in the back. For one, we wouldn’t know if this was part of the scenario or a legitimate problem with the LEOs. I was told there were several times in the past where Robin Sage participants would get in trouble with local authorities due to misunderstandings on both sides, hence the piece of paper declaring our affiliation to the U.S. military.

Because I was the only non-10th Mountain Division member of the group, I was often given the “best” assignments to go on. One of the last missions I was on had me observing a farmhouse that was rumored to be a staging area for the Pineland regime forces. One candidate and I silently made our way down to the supposed site and settled down. We watched the farmhouse for nearly eight hours in the cold, damp woods. I don’t recall seeing much, to be honest, but after pulling out and reporting back to base, someone with a higher pay grade than me decided it was worth raiding. They could have at least given me the fun of doing that after watching the damn thing all day, but nope, plenty of guard duties needed to be filled in.

Our “guerrilla” camp during the exercise. | Image courtesy of the author

To be continued in part two.

Featured courtesy of the author