By SAMANTHA PERRY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — Bluefield and surrounding areas are now a training ground for U.S. military special operations forces, city officials told the Daily Telegraph Tuesday.
The elite teams are currently in the city for their third training exercise, Bluefield City Manager and retired U.S. Army Col. Dane Rideout said.
“Military units have to train someplace, so why not Bluefield?” Rideout asked. “This is money now being spent in West Virginia and surrounding states. It was staggering how behind we were in capturing federal dollars. Our effort is to create opportunities to spend the dollars here, and at the same time prepare our nation’s military forces to go protect our nation’s interests globally.”
Both Rideout and Mayor Ron Martin touted the economic benefits of the training.
“The inns are full, the hotels are full,” Martin said. “It’s really cool that he (Rideout) was able to get them here to Bluefield.”
Rideout said the exercises range from surveillance and reconnaissance to airborne operations and “raids on soft targets,” all utilizing logistical communication, intelligence gathering and critical support tasks.
The training has brought in thousands of dollars to Bluefield, Mercer County and the surrounding region.
“I believe that over the last several exercises that they have spent $30,000 to $70,000 in federal funds just in the local economy,” Rideout said.
Exercises being conducted are covert, which means they are supposed to stay off the radar of local residents.
“You may not be seeing them, but that means they’re doing their job,” Rideout said, noting “they are supposed to be fitting in,” blending in with residents while at the same time conducting training.
Rideout said the Bluefield area provides a rural and urban setting that is unlike the military installations where the soldiers have previously trained.
“If you can operate in Bluefield and not get detected, you can operate anywhere in the world,” Rideout said. “Within 30 minutes of our first training someone called to report suspicious activity. They are training to do a job undetected, so this is a great venue to train.”
The objective for Bluefield to serve as a training ground began when Rideout moved to southern West Virginia and took the helm as city manager.
“The topography mirrors Afghanistan when you take away the trees,” he said. “It’s very rugged terrain, with unpredictable weather patterns. There are a lot of areas where you must use the valleys in order to navigate. What also makes southern West Virginia unique is that we notice people and things that aren’t from around here quickly. We’re a close-knit group, and when an outsider comes in we pick up very quickly, which makes it an excellent training venue for special operations forces in our military.”
Rideout also noted that the training allows the region to “help our military.”
“Anything we can do to assist our forces, that’s number one,” he said.
Rideout said the training is also an economic resource. “These are outside Department of Defense dollars being spent in our region that would not have been spent if we didn’t create the opportunity. They stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, and purchase fuel and supplies. It’s an injection of federal training dollars that we normally would not have seen.”
Local emergency service responders are also benefitting from the military training exercises.
“Our police department, fire department, EMS and airport authority are all partnering and working with these groups, and there is cross-training going on,” Rideout said. “They’re learning techniques, tactics and procedures on various things … the fire departments and EMS are learning new medical procedures. That’s a cross-training piece.”
“What better way for us to market and show off our region to future residents of West Virginia than to have them come up here and see it and love it,” he said. “West Virginia is the 15th state to not tax military pensions. Our hope is that these folks may come back to Bluefield.
“We have wonderful houses, a beautiful place to live, work and play,” he continued. “This may be the place for them to start a second career (upon retirement). They don’t have criminal records, they have a valuable skill set and leadership, and they come with classified security clearance, which is very marketable in tech fields and defense contracts.”
Rideout said attracting retired military members could give the region a “population shot in the arm.”
“Those are some very important points as to why we’re doing this,” he said.
Martin credited Rideout with being “the driving force” in bringing the military training to Bluefield, and noted there is a “new energy” in the city.
“It’s contagious,” Martin said. “It really is fantastic. It’s amazing how much difference one person (Rideout) can make.”
Rideout emphasized that the troops’ training comes with a serious goal in mind.
“What they are doing is very real, and when they leave Bluefield they will go back to their families and then deploy to countries that are not as friendly,” he said.
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