By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — Local leaders and the public had an opportunity Wednesday to meet U.S. Special Operations soldiers who have been using rugged terrain around the city of Bluefield along with parts of Mercer County and neighboring Tazewell County for an intensive training exercise.
Elite teams are conducting their third training exercise in the region this week. Bluefield City Manager and retired U.S. Army Col. Dane Rideout introduced the U.S. Special Operations personnel to the public during a press conference at the Commercialization Station along Bluefield Avenue. Operating in populated areas is one of the things soldiers in such units train for. Rideout introduced Lt. Col. Kent Solheim and spoke about the exercises’ benefits to the region.
“If they can operate in Bluefield, they can operate just about anywhere,” Rideout told the guests. “And that’s not kidding. Not his unit, but another unit, within 30 minutes they were compromised in the sense that somebody knew they were there. Second thing is, they have to train someplace, and Uncle Sugar has a pretty big budget and they could spend their federal dollars here. They could send them other places, but why not Bluefield? We’ve opened up our doors and I appreciate my board of directors letting me do something a little creative and think outside the box.”
While training in the area, the soldiers were using local hotels and restaurants as well as buying local supplies, Rideout said. Hosting military training exercises opens up other economic development opportunities, too. West Virginia is the 15th state to lift the taxation of military retirement benefits.
“This is a great recruiting tool. This guys come up here, and they’re all type triple A personalities,” he said. “They all like hunting, fishing, that type of stuff.”
Retired military personnel seeking a new place to live bring valuable skill sets, their families, leadership skills and a disposable income with them, Rideout added.
The training sessions also benefited local first responders while preparing the special sperations forces for future missions overseas.
“Most importantly, it’s giving back,” he said. “My police department and fire department are getting as much out of this as these guys are, just on sharing of ideas. On top of it all, we want these guys to be sharp as the tip of the spear when they go down range.”
Members of the Bluefield City Board of Directors, the Mercer County Commission, and other local leaders attended Wednesday’s meeting with Special Operations soldiers visiting the region. Solheim wore Army fatigues while others wore civilian clothes like the ones they wore during the training exercises; he was also the unit’s representative and the only one who gave his name.
“This is a unique opportunity with probably all of the right people in the room all at one time,”Solheim said. “And I get to be the spokesman, but if they could be here, there would be a lot of guys who would be standing behind me.”
The unit operates mostly in Africa, but it could be called to serve anywhere in the world, he told the visitors. Terrain around the Bluefield area replicates the sort of conditions the unit could encounter in many other places.
“The geography here is perfect, but that’s just one component of our ability to come and train somewhere,” Solheim said.
The units were welcomed to Bluefield, Solheim added, referring to an article in Wednesday’s edition of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. The city was the “perfect little microcosm of good people, a city that supports it, and opens their doors to allow us to do this. With those two or three things you have just the right pieces we need to do the kind of training that we’re doing here.”
One soldier compared Bluefield to the atmosphere around Asheville, NC where people are receptive and welcoming. Some felt the area could progress economically.
“It would be cool to come back in a couple of years and see the changes you’ve done at the state and the city level,” one member said.
Bluefield Police Chief Dennis Dillow said working with the special units has been “a lot of fun.”
“I’m honored to have been allowed to do it,” Dillow stated. “Really, it’s been a different experience for us. It’s been great. It enhances the training, it really does. You get human-to-human interaction. There is no substitute.”
Chief Rick Cary of the Bluefield Fire Department said firefighters had the opportunity to train with the first group of Special Operations soldiers to visit the area and had an “excellent” experience. The Special Operations medic, who is trained to treat gunshot wounds and other combat injuries, had the skills expected of doctors. It was a good opportunity to share ideas and experiences.
“We were able to compare ideas, compare some stories,” Cary said. “They’re just like a doctor. They do it all.”
Besides visiting with the special guests, members of the public were also able to see a military version of a vehicle often seen in the region: A side-by-side ATV known as a RZR, usually pronounced as “razor.” It was a brown camoflage color and more substantial than the RZR’s often seen on the nearby Pocahontas Trail, Mercer County’s branch of the Hatfield-McCoy Trail.
Military exercises in the region are also planned for February, May, June and July next year, Rideout said earlier.
— Contact Greg Jordan at [email protected]
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