Operation Counter Jade Helm: Are Rogue Militants Preparing for War on American Soil?

On patrol with the Patriot Movement to find out

Counter Jade Helm observers Pete Lanteri and Larry Fortney watch a suspicious airplane flying above Camp Swift military base in Bastrop, Texas. Credit: Ben Sklar


n the third day of Operation Jade Helm 15 — the Special Forces training drill this summer that scared the hell out of nearly half of Texas — an ex-Marine named Pete Lanteri was leaning against a pickup truck at a Citgo station in the tiny town of Bastrop, scoping out an airplane high above the Camp Swift military base. Lanteri was having a bad couple of weeks. The night before, he drove 16 hours from his home outside Phoenix and spent the morning passed out in his Hummer. Five days earlier, he had taken down his Facebook page after it was viciously attacked by angry liberals. The week before that, his dog had died.

Now, however, as he watched the plane turn circles overhead, none of it seemed to matter. He had finally embarked on the personal project that had brought him to Bastrop to begin with: Operation Counter Jade Helm, his plan to monitor the real Jade Helm with civilian volunteers. With him at his observation post were a few key members of CJH's Texas chapter: Eric Johnston, a retired sheriff's deputy with a pistol on his hip; Larry Fortney, a sunburned home-improvement guy from the Fort Worth metro area; and Fortney's wife, Mary Pat, who told me as we wilted in the heat of mid-July that she had signed up with Lanteri not because she feared, as many Texans did, that the Jade Helm troops were going to invade the Lone Star State, but rather because of some deeply felt beliefs about her freedoms as a citizen and how they might be threatened by the New World Order.

The team had come together just two hours earlier at a rendezvous near Bastrop's biggest landmark, the local county courthouse on Pecan Street. Johnston, who had recently quit drinking, but still held a job doing "clean-up" at a tavern, arrived from work in his pickup truck. After a quick greeting, he and Lanteri squatted on the sidewalk to study a map of Texas. Lanteri had received a piece of "intel" about a convoy of vehicles, five hours out of town, moving near a place called Caddo Lake. He reasoned that the troops had been inserted at the lake by parachute or boat drop and were perhaps traveling toward Bastrop with a crew of friendly ranchers. Though there wasn't much in the way of actual fact to back this theory up, Lanteri conjectured that the Jade Helm soldiers were headed toward Camp Swift.

So when the Fortneys got to the courthouse — Mary Pat in a tank top, Larry in a Harley shirt — everyone drove off toward the base. After briefly getting lost, they eventually reached the Citgo station and arranged themselves in its parking lot, across a highway from Camp Swift. Motorists came and went, unhooking gas pumps and buying little sundries, but the base was deathly silent: a muted space of military monuments and seemingly vacant Quonset huts. For the better part of an hour, nothing happened; cars whizzed by on Highway 95, a windsock rippled, the Texas sun beat down. And that's when the airplane suddenly appeared.

Wrinkling his mustache, Johnston raised his field binoculars and squinted at the craft as Lanteri, in what he liked to call his "casual camouflage," stepped back from the pickup, gazing at the broiling Texas sky.

"It's got an N-marking," Johnston muttered, following the plane. "It's definitely civilian."

Lanteri shook his head and said, "You wouldn't think a civilian plane would be allowed above a military base…"

It was Fortney, having grown up flying airplanes, who surmised from the pilot's circular trajectory that this could be a scouting flight of sorts — though of course he couldn't say for what or whom. Still, he was pretty much convinced that the covert soldiers could be in the area. "I'm sure they're out there somewhere," he said, "doing something."

When officials at the Pentagon unveiled Jade Helm this spring, it triggered an eruption of the Big American Crazy — that recurring paranoia that has attached itself throughout the nation's history to suspected threats like the Masons, the Papists, the Communists, the Islamists and the international banking cartel. Texans, in particular, lost their minds. They worried that the drill was in fact a furtive plot to seize their guns and appeared in droves at community meetings with operational planners to none-too-gently express their disapproval.

The exercise, which began on July 15th and will last until September, is a real-world simulation designed to put the Special Forces through what the military calls the "environmental challenges" of operating behind enemy lines. The troops will largely move in secret through Jade Helm's seven-state battle space – from Utah to Florida – blending in to resident populations, occasionally by seeking the help of locals. But almost from the moment that the Defense Department acknowledged more than a thousand Green Berets, Navy SEALs and members of the Army's Delta Force would be maneuvering for two months on Texan soil, conspiracy theorists concluded that the exercise was no more than a cover for imposing martial law.

When he heard about the exercise in March, Lanteri instinctively dismissed this talk of a military takeover, but he still felt compelled as a veteran, a former member of the Minuteman border group and a patriotic can-do American to get involved. Thinking he could use Jade Helm as a foil to hone his own soldierly talents, he launched his operation on a Facebook page that attracted thousands of followers — not to mention appreciable attention from the media. Working state by state, he recruited field observers — about 200, he says — in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida and, of course, Texas, where Jade Helm mania achieved sufficient pitch that, late in April, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered his State Guard to monitor the drill, setting up an alarming situation in which federal soldiers, Texas troops and CJH irregulars might just possibly converge in a Waco-style shootout.

"When I saw Jade Helm was going on," Lanteri told me, "I thought, you know, patriot groups need to practice other things besides putting on their camo, going to the range and taking cool pictures. We need surveillance, counter-surveillance and organizational practice, especially on a multistate scale."

We were sitting in his Hummer, which was packed with tactical gear — bedroll, gallon jugs of water, scanner-ham radio, supply of beef jerky. Lanteri, baseball-capped and bug-eyed from exhaustion, had also brought a special thermal camera to photograph the Jade Helm troops, the only kind of shooting he was going to allow. Though Johnston had his pistol and an AR-15 in a gun case in the flatbed of his pickup, even he acknowledged that going scope-to-scope with the elite Special Forces was not a bright idea. "We will not confront the military," he insisted. "That'd be suicide."

After leaving Camp Swift, the CJH observers decided to split up. Lanteri planned to travel north, policing the highways in the College Station area. Johnston and the Fortneys headed south, tracking the troops through Smithville and La Grange.

Back in his vehicle, Lanteri donned a pair of mirrored shades and wrote his destination in a log book. "When you do this kind of work," he said as we set off, "you have to be patient. It's all about being at the right place at the right time."

Over the next five hours, he drove his Hummer more than a hundred miles across the central Texas flatlands, speeding past diners, trailers, feedlots, ranches, trash fires, hawk nests, oil derricks, shopping malls, little roadside churches, little roadside bars, fast-food restaurants, burrito joints, auto body shops and a couple of lonesome fireworks stands, never seeing a single Special Forces guy, but his cellphone pinging constantly with leads.

At one point, Fortney sent a text announcing he was hot on the trail of some troop carriers moving in a caravan on Texas Highway 71, but this turned out to be an ordinary column of National Guardsmen. Not long after, Johnston called to say that he had spotted some "multipurpose" military vehicles filling their tanks at a Buc-ee's fueling-station rest stop.

He'd even approached them to ask, "Hey, guys. Are you the elusive Jade Helm?"

That's when they told him that they were doing roadwork. 

Here's the thing: Jade Helm is kind of crazy, in the sense that it is measurably weird for multiple detachments of plainclothed, black-ops soldiers to be practicing their infiltration skills on rural highways and ordinary people's private land. Even though the Army Special Operations Command issued a statement reassuring the public that most of the maneuvers would be conducted in "remote areas," people wanted to know which remote areas, and why there needed to be soldiers rehearsing for an unconventional war on American soil at all, and what exactly it meant that the operation's architects had drafted a map of Texas labeling the state as "hostile territory." Which is simply to say: You didn't have to be a full-on gold-burying, ammo-hoarding devotee of the Big American Crazy to be slightly creeped out by Jade Helm, especially when you might come across some highly trained military killers tramping through your neighbor's backyard.

But then the reaction to Jade Helm was equally crazy, if not more so. Batshit bloggers theorized that five WalMarts shuttered for repair would be pressed into service as weapons dumps for a nonexistent U.N. army purportedly taking part in the invasion. Jingoistic yahoos were absolutely certain that refrigerated Blue Bell ice cream trucks would be repurposed as rolling morgues. YouTube videos emerged claiming that Jade Helm's "Helm" was an acronym for "Homeland Eradication of Local Militants." And, of course, the press ate up and amplified this nonsense — starting in the backwoods of the Internet, then climbing higher onto feature sites like Talking Points Memo and Salon.com, before establishing a foothold in The New York Times. Finally, on April 29th, Josh Earnest, President Obama's chief spokesman, was forced to address the issue in the White House briefing room. After dealing with questions about the death of Freddie Gray and the nuclear deal with Iran, a reporter asked Earnest what he thought about Jade Helm. Was all this public anxiety merely paranoia? "The thing I can say without having a lot of detailed knowledge about the particular exercise," Earnest said, "is that in no way will the constitutional rights or civil liberties of any American citizen be infringed upon." 

Figuring out where Pete Lanteri stood along this spectrum of nuttiness wasn't easy. On the one hand, he disavowed the notion that the federal government was taking over Texas, repeatedly insisting that all he wanted to accomplish was to sharpen his own skills and in the process "build a network" of like-minded patriots — a message he conveyed not only on his Facebook page but to willing enablers on Fox News radio, in the Houston Chronicle and at the ABC affiliate in Phoenix. On the other hand, he recently wrote on his Facebook page that "EVERY ASPECT OF AMERICA NEEDS A FUCKING PURGE!!!" and "Here's hoping we are in a shooting war to save this country by the next Fourth of July!!!!!" Moreover, he actually appeared to believe that a handful of amateur observers supported only by some social-media tipsters were going to record the movements of the most professional warriors on the planet on a terrain that stretched over — God, who knew? — 5,000, 10,000 square miles. 

It helped put things in context when Lanteri, who is 44, gave me a thumbnail bio as we made the roughly 200-mile roundtrip from Bastrop to Caldwell to College Station and back. A self-proclaimed "Sicilian from the Bronx," he mainly grew up on Long Island, the son of pizzeria owners who didn't hunt or fish, let alone know the difference between Marine Force Recon and MARSOC. But Lanteri — born a patriot, he says — joined the Marines in 1988 and served three years as a rifleman. He never deployed and in fact admits that he wasn't a great Marine ("I was basically a wiseass 19-year-old kid"). After his discharge, he went back to Long Island and took a job as a union electrician.

As the years went by, Lanteri's politics gradually evolved from the usual Long Island conservatism into something harsher and more skeptical. Though he didn't seem to have been radicalized by any one event, a constellation of odious federal overreaches — things like assault-weapons bans and the proliferation of the surveillance state — got under his skin. At one point in the car, he said, "The government doesn't fear the people anymore. The people fear the government. That's what we're trying to correct."

In 2005, Lanteri was invited by a military buddy to visit Arizona and spend time working with the Minutemen. He liked the life so much — cooking out, sleeping beneath the stars, hiking mountain trails, protecting the frontier against illegal immigrants and drug mules — that back in New York, he founded a Minuteman chapter that watched the Canadian border. During the next decade, he traveled back and forth between New York and Arizona. But recently he split up with his wife, got sick of the East Coast's expenses and nanny-state restrictions, hired someone to run his contracting business in Bay Shore and shipped out to Arizon permanently. All of which is to say that by the time he got to Texas, he was a quasi-unemployed middle-aged divorced guy.

Back in Bastrop, it was time for chow, and the observers set a rally point for the Old Town bar and grill. The place had gotten into the spirit of things, putting out a chalkboard on the sidewalk that advertised a Jade Helm 15 Special, which, when it turned out not to exist, seemed like a nasty joke. Seated at the bar, Lanteri got a burger and a beer, checking out the waitresses and looking a little downbeat from the day's lack of activity. The dimly lit room was filled with dudes in cowboy hats and college football T-shirts. Once the Fortneys got there (Johnston, 11 days sober, had gone home to his wife), he conducted a dutiful debriefing — "You see anything?" The general consensus was: Not much. Yet.

Then, just as the team was about to leave, something happened. Out the window, a group of men with thick beards and wearing green fatigues marched by in loose formation, handguns holstered on their hips. They seemed like some bizarre apparition of the very Special Forces Lanteri had been looking for all day, until they doubled back and came inside. Lanteri gripped his drink and stared at them. For slightly less than one half of a second you could see his eyes say, What the fuck? The armed men ordered drinks and introduced themselves. They weren't from Jade Helm, but from a Second Amendment rights group, "Come and Take It Texas," out in costume doing a bit of agitprop.

Over another round of beer, a discussion ensued about Texas gun laws and what precisely Lanteri was doing here in Bastrop. As Matthew Short, the Come and Take It public relations director, got the details from Lanteri on CJH, he nodded his head, saying, "Cool." One of Short's men — he had a bar-friendly black-powder pistol on his waist and a "Team America: Fuck Yeah!" patch on his sleeve — was carrying a GoPro and a microphone. He asked to interview Lanteri, and though not exactly comfortable with the camera, Lanteri talked about the trip to College Station, admitting that he hadn't really seen much yet. "There were no FEMA camps and there were no Blue Bell trucks being used as portable morgues," Lanteri said. "It was just business as usual."

Some of the men looked at him awkwardly, unsure if he was kidding.

Later that night, when we got back to Austin, I let Lanteri sleep in my hotel room; otherwise he'd have crashed again in his truck. When I woke up in the morning, he was reclining on two chairs pushed together with an ottoman in between them, working on his phone.

He had gotten another tip, he said, from a friend of a woman who had subscribed to his Facebook page. It was promising: five or six white vans had been spotted the night before at a service station near Texas A&M.

Enlivened by the news, off he went, fetching his Hummer from the parking garage and moving back out onto the road. It was 98 degrees and humid outside — Texas hot — and, while we drove, Lanteri marshaled his forces. He called Larry Fortney and instructed him to head toward College Station as a secondary unit. Then he checked in with another CJHer, a guy named Ricky who was still keeping an eye on Caddo Lake for any lingering Jade Helm soldiers.

As we took the now-familiar route down I-35 and east on 71, I hazarded to ask Lanteri what he would do if he never actually encountered Jade Helm. He thought about it for a moment then said, "Look, I'm meeting people and I'm getting them out in the field. It's something I can apply to the next time I do stuff like this."

By "stuff like this," he meant the activities of the so-called Patriot movement, the rebranded term of art by which some former members of the Militia now choose to refer to themselves. While Patriots tend to be white men, who mix unsavory nativist beliefs with the conviction that the American project is under threat by a debilitating loss of self-reliance, distinctions do exist among them. The armed civilians, for example, who showed up in Nevada last year to assist the rancher Cliven Bundy in his standoff with the Bureau of Land Management were mostly straight-up anti-government-types, unwilling to permit federal bureaucrats to muscle an honest citizen off his property. The Oath Keepers, a Las Vegas-based nonprofit of ex- and current military men and law-enforcement officers have taken oaths to disobey orders they feel violate the U.S. Constitution, like, say, one that might require an assault on sovereign Texas. Then there are your basic garden-variety Preppers who, awaiting the apocalypse, are busy stocking bunkers with Aquatank water-storage pillows and multiple-month supplies of freeze-dried food.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has identified more than 1,000 active Patriot groups nationwide as of 2013 that are "opposed to the 'New World Order,' engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines." And while every so often a member or sympathizer of these groups shoots a state trooper or crashes a plane into an IRS facility, Counter Jade Helm's low turnout appeared to indicate that the groups aren't always the threat they are made out to be. In fact, I asked Lanteri why he had managed to attract only five observers to his Bastrop operation. "Basically, people are lazy," he told me. "It's easy to be involved when it's just on the Internet."

As for Lanteri himself, the SPLC definition of a Patriot only partly fit him. Yes, he had referred on Facebook to Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the African-American mayor of Baltimore, as a "crackhead looking Ho." And yes, he didn't trust the government, complaining not incessantly, but pretty darn often, about illegal immigration and Islamic sleeper cells. And yes, two days before he got to Texas, he had discussed with Alan Colmes on Fox News Radio another posting in which he'd said he couldn't wait to kill "thousands" of liberals (the remark that led to the attacks that forced him to close his Facebook page). But from Lanteri's point of view, the comment had just slipped out. He was still upset from having cremated his dog, and anyhow, it wasn't like he was cruising through Texas with a loaded AK looking to hurt someone. Twice, in fact, in the middle of his search, he stopped to help broken-down drivers with his jumper cables. The rationale for CJH, as he put it, was simple: "Shit, if the military is gonna do their thing in public, so are we."

As we passed through Caldwell for the third time in two days, Lanteri got a text from a psychic he had consulted. She was receiving vibratory feelings that the Special Forces might be in or around a town called Cooks Point. Checking Google maps, he discovered, a bit freaked out, that Cooks Point wasn't more than 10 miles up the road. Moments later, when the psychic sent another text, reporting that she was now picking up the image of "a lizard's head pointing south," Lanteri became entirely freaked out.

"Dude," he said, turning to me, "I've got a tattoo of an iguana on my back. We're driving north. That means it's pointing south."

Lanteri now decided it was crucial to drive down every single highway, county road and unpaved tractor path in the general Cooks Point region, looking for the image of a lizard — and not the one tattooed on his back. Maybe, he said, there was a property out there called the Salamander Ranch or something similar. As we neared Cook's Point, he swung the Hummer off the highway onto FM 1362, then down FM 166, where the asphalt turned to dirt and civilization radically thinned out. We saw angus cattle and Texas longhorns and wild hogs and the Turkey Ranch and the Beaver Creek Ranch and a peacock perched on a picket fence, but nothing even vaguely resembling a lizard.

Counter Jade Helm, stripped down to its essence, was an ill-fated and sparsely-attended one-sided game of hide-and-seek.

Before the launch of Counter Jade Helm, Lanteri had gotten some pretty serious treatment from the media. Some of the treatment was supportive, some was openly disdainful, but still he got it. The suggestion being that CJH, while possibly a bad idea or potentially downright dangerous, was nonetheless a force to be reckoned with. But in actuality — and if you want to talk about the Big American Crazy — the media, which is to say myself, had likely legitimized, even encouraged the idea. The truth on the ground was that Counter Jade Helm, stripped down to its essence, was an ill-fated and sparsely-attended one-sided game of hide-and-seek.

Even though the Special Forces weren't playing, there was still more land to explore, more dusty byways to examine and more dead ends to get out of on roads so narrow that in order to escape we had to put the Hummer in reverse. After an interminable period, we came upon a sprawling piece of property called the Whiskey Hollow Ranch. Something about it — its size, its solitude, the way that it was set back from the road behind enormous wooden gates — set Lanteri on edge. Stopping the Hummer, he reached for his binoculars and said, "If I was Jade Helm that's exactly the set-up I'd be looking for." He proceeded to scrutinize the place, noting the presence of seven cars, an 18-wheeler truck and three figures, clearly male, in the distance.

It occurred to me: Which one was actually more intrusive — the alleged invasion of Texas by an army of Green Berets or a guy in a Hummer spying on some no doubt innocent Americans out in the sun enjoying a summer day?

Leaving Whiskey Hollow, Lanteri announced that when darkness fell, he was going to quit the back roads, take up a position on the main junction in between Caldwell and College Station and spend "all night" there looking for Jade Helm vehicles. I reluctantly informed him I was done. "But what if I get some action?" he asked. I told him that he knew how to reach me.

Released from the Hummer and headed back to Austin, I felt free. But it wasn't more than 40 minutes later, as I was thinking about a shower and a drink, that Lanteri called my phone. He asked me where I was; I told him not far from the hotel. The line went silent for a moment. He mentioned that he had to get up early in the morning to meet some people in Bastrop. Would I mind letting him spend another night on the pushed-together chairs? "I think," he said, "I'm coming back too."