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Jade Helm 15 exercises kick off in Texas amid strong suspicion

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Jon Herskovitz/Reuters

(Read caption) The headquarters of the Bastrop County Republican Party are seen in Bastrop, Texas July 10, 2015. To hear the conspiracy theorists tell it, a labyrinth of tunnels is being built under Walmart stores for military attacks on civilians, and an orchestrated financial crisis will lead to martial law, U.S. troops patrolling chaotic streets, and a dictatorship under President Barack Obama. These and similar tales have gained currency in recent months among a small but powerful group of anti-government Texas voters in the run-up to planned military training drills in the West and Southwest, including in the Lone Star state. While such views represent the fringes of American political opinion, they reflect a broader suspicion of the federal government that has run deep in Texas for years. The US Army Special Operations Command exercise, called Jade Helm 15, has brought these fears to a crescendo, particularly in Bastrop. Some of the exercises, scheduled from July 15 to Sept. 15, will be held in this city located east of Austin.

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As the US army began its latest training operation in Texas on Wednesday, a pervasive concern of a pending military invasion rippled across the state:

“It’s here,” wrote The Texas Tribune.

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While news reports poke fun at the conspiracy theorists who have been casting suspicion over Operation Jade Helm 15 – hypotheses that include the looming imposition of martial law and the building of a military tunnel under Walmart – conversations with many residents show their ideas have gained steady and surprising traction in many communities.

Despite officials’ attempts to quell public concern about the Jade Helm program – a Special Operations exercise that was announced in March and is slated to run across several western and southwestern states – apprehensions among some residents run high.

“While such views represent the fringes of American political opinion, they represent a broader suspicion of the federal government that has run deep in Texas for years,” reports Reuters.

One resident of Christoval, a small Texas town of about 500 people, told The New York Times his friend had started burying his guns to hide them. Another man, a school district superintendent, described seeing low-flying military planes outside.

In Bastrop, a city east of Austin where some of the training exercises will run from July 15 to Sept. 15, fears came to a head at an April town hall meeting, where residents fired questions at a military spokesman. “Are you planning on detaining or rounding up any American citizens?” one resident blatantly asked.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas, who oversees the House Homeland Security Committee, tried to dismiss fears that the program would pose any danger to Americans. “Our US military is not a threat,” he told reporters at a Monitor-hosted breakfast in May.

Hoping to allay residents' concerns, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has taken a different stance, taking care not to antagonize worried right-wing voters.

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In April, the governor announced he would deploy the Texas State Guard to monitor the army’s activities during Operation Jade Helm, calling it an important protective measure “ to ensure that Texas communities remain safe, secure and informed occurring in their vicinity,” he said, according to The Washington Post.

Some residents said they were determined to shut out the theories swarming their communities.

“We support our military, and they have to train somewhere," Pam Ferguson, an antique storeowner in Bastrop, told Reuters. "It might as well be here."

This report contains material from Reuters.