Bluefield aerial photograph

Bluefield recently hosted NATO troops during a military training operation. The goal for the operation was to remain undetected. 

BLUEFIELD — On a Saturday in June, residents were unaware of the presence of Latvian soldiers in the Bluefield area.

That’s because the military training operation was kept secret so the operation would not be interrupted or compromised in any way. In fact, one of the purposes of the training was to remain undetected.

“We were part of a bigger exercise this go around,” Bluefield City Manager Dane Rideout, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, said, referring to previous military ops in the area that he was instrumental in bringing here.

“These types of training events continue to highlight our incredible region, provide a federal injection of dollars into our local economy and in a small way participate in the training and readiness of our military forces,” he said. “This recent operation expanded that training and readiness globally by providing a venue for our NATO partners that mirrors their Area of Operations in Central Europe.”

Last month’s operation was part of the Ridge Runner program, which operates in different parts of the state because of its diverse training needs and the terrain the state offers. Ridge Runner is held numerous times per year to train forces in both the United States and around the world.

According to an article in the ArmyTimes, the U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers completed the first irregular and unconventional warfare training iteration for members of the Polish Territorial Defense Forces and Latvian Zemmessardze as a part of the Ridge Runner program in West Virginia.

The Green Berets, who are with 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group and the West Virginia Army National Guard, use the Ridge Runner exercise to offer U.S. troops and NATO allied forces training in asymmetrical warfare.

Part of that training was in Bluefield and involved about a dozen Latvian troops, said Tony Wagner, a city engineer who helped set up the exercise.

The troops used the public works garage, Mercer County Airport and a few offices for their training, which focused on surveillance, he said.

“I was privileged and honored to be a part of it,” Wagner said, adding the soldiers and their work were not detected by anyone, which was one of the purposes of the exercise.

“The conclusion of this Ridge Runner training is an exceptionally important milestone for both West Virginia and our allies in Poland and Latvia, who we have a longstanding relationship within our state through the State Partnership Programs with the Illinois and Michigan National Guards,” said West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General Maj. Gen. James Hoyer in an article from the W.Va. National Guard. “West Virginia is the perfect venue for our highly trained special forces to help these two nations’ military forces develop the skills vital to their mission at home, which is extraordinarily important in this era of geo-political uncertainty.”

Prior to last month’s exercise, many other military ops have been staged in the area since Rideout took over the reins of city manager four years ago and spearheaded the initiative.

“I estimate over 15 different operations have taken place over a three-year period and close to 400 Special Operations soldiers have participated,” he said.

“The topography mirrors Afghanistan when you take away the trees,” Rideout said in a previous article. “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 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 Latvian soldiers were performing a covert operation, 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.”

Local emergency service responders are also benefiting from some of the military training exercises, he added.

“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.”

Not only that, it’s an economic tool for the area.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Soldiers who visit the area may very well want to return, he said, even to live after retirement.

“We have wonderful houses, a beautiful place to live, work and play,” Rideout said. “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.”

Bluefield Mayor Ron Martin said previously that Rideout has been the driving force behind the initiative and the result has been “fantastic,” bringing a “new energy” to the city.

“It’s contagious,” Martin said. “It really is fantastic. It’s amazing how much difference one person (Rideout) can make.”

Regardless of all of the benefits, the training is serious business.

“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,” Rideout said.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com