Copters will keep buzzing downtown through Friday
'Routine' activity part of training for war on terror
By Tillie Fong, Rocky Mountain News (Contact), Alan Gathright, Rocky Mountain News
For those who missed the racket of several military choppers zooming low around downtown and Coors Field on Monday night, the show isn't over.
U.S. military Special Operations commandos will be conducting the airborne counter-terrorism training from early afternoon until 11 p.m. through Friday night.
Tuesday night, two Blackhawk and two Little Bird helicopters were training at the old Children's Hospital in Denver, circling the building before landing on the roof or in the parking lot, then taking off again.
Two Denver fire trucks and two Denver police cars were also on hand on Downing Street near the hospital.
"It's a good opportunity for the city and our department," said Sonny Jackson, spokesman for Denver police.
"It's a great opportunity to learn how a premier organization functions in this event. The officers are soaking up the information like sponges."
Jackson's willingness to share information Tuesday was in contrast to Monday's vagueness. Monday, PIO John White would say very little about the exercise other than it was being run the by U.S. Department of Justice, which was inaccuate.
The exercise by special ops troops, supported by Denver police SWAT teams and firefighters, is intended to prepare for a terrorism threat in a "realistic urban environment," said Lt. Steve Ruh, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
"It familiarizes our guys with the inner workings of Denver," said Ruh, who is in town for the exercise. "They get a good idea of how the city is laid out and how to work with different (local) agencies."
Tip of the spear
"It's all in preparation for anything that could possibly happen with the global war on terrorism," said Ruh, whose command coordinates all military branches' crack commando units — from Army Rangers to Navy SEALS.
The Special Operations Command calls itself the "Tip of the Spear" against the nation's gravest threats. Its mission is to "plan and synchronize operations against terrorist networks," according the command's Web site.
Ruh noted that the exercises are conducted in major cities in the United States, usually at the invitation of the cities, but that doesn't mean that those cities are necessarily possible targets for terrorism.
"If something did happen, it prepares us to help you guys," he said.
Ruh said that special operations personnel have a 24-week pre-deployment period when they constantly train on various techniques and procedures.
"This is part of their certification exercise," he said of the training in American cities. "The techniques they are using here will be applied abroad."
Ruh also said Tuesday that the special operations personnel training in Denver are drawn from the Army and the Navy.
Denver police Lt. Ron Saunier said SWAT teams are helping secure the military exercise locations and doing separate training, but they are not participating directly with the special operations units.
Some people were thrilled to see Black Hawk assault helicopters and MH-6 "Little Bird" choppers in action, but others grumbled about the window-rattling night flights.
Becky Alfrey watched in amazement as the whirlybirds whizzed her 13th-floor flat, "darting in-between the buildings downtown."
"I waved at one of the copters and someone waved back!" she said, adding that the tethered, camouflaged commandos "were literally hanging half out of the helicopter."
Alfrey was more excited than annoyed, but added: "At 10:30 p.m. I did turn on my air-conditioning fan (to drown out the choppers), because it was a little noisy."
But others, like Chuck Clawson, 52, a school teacher were none too pleased when the helicopters were making passes over and over again along Cherokee and Bannock streets in the Baker neighborhood Monday night.
"I noticed that these guys were really low," he said. "You can see the guys in the camos, hanging out the door. They were making tight turns around Mississippi Avenue and then going downtown to the Civic Center."
He said he was concerned about the danger the choppers would pose to the public if one of them crashed.
"I know all these guys are pros, but this is a dangerous place in the city," he said.
"We spend billions of dollars for training facilities, so why are they flying 100 missions over heavily populated areas at very low altitudes without any warning?"
Some Rockies fans complained about the distraction of the helicopters repeatedly circling Coors Field — but no one blamed the military for the 7-1 blowout by the Atlanta Braves.
Military and police officials dismissed reports that the exercise was preparation for the Democratic National Convention coming to Denver in August.
"We have nothing to do with the Democratic National Convention," said Ruh, noting that similar counterterrorism exercises have been conducted in Manhattan, Los Angeles and Houston.
Given the high-profile — loud — nature of the night flights, wouldn't it have been smart publicity to alert the public before exercises began?
"Advance notice was given to the (Denver) civil authorities. We were here as guests," Ruh said. "It would be up to (local authorities) to send it out."
Saunier said that security-conscious Department of Defense officials asked police to "respond to inquiry only." So he provided a "very generic statement" Monday to police dispatchers in case the public called as the helicopter exercises began.
When asked Tuesday why SOCOM did not want to provide any public notice of the exercises, Ruh's response was: "That was yesterday; I'm here today."
However, he said he was pleased with the fact that Denver residents were willing to call authorities to find out what was going on.
"Denver has some amazing citizens — citizens who are calling 911 because they're seeing something that is not of the norm," he said.