BASTROP, Texas - Vicki Lehmeir said she was initially surprised that Gov. Greg Abbott put the Texas State Guard in charge of monitoring the U.S. military's Jade Helm 15 exercises this summer.
Then again, Lehmeir, treasurer of the county Democratic Party, reconsidered.
“Gov. Abbott is pandering to the paranoia in the state,” said Lehmeir, on Thursday morning. “And then he’ll probably complain about the cost, like he did at the border when those children were coming across.”
Fear that the exercises represent the beginnings of a military-led takeover of the state, orchestrated by President Barack Obama, were all too real for Bastrop resident Barbara Lynch.
Lynch said she doesn’t believe the Hawaiian-born president was actually born in the United States.
“You never know what’s going on behind the scenes. I’m just afraid we’re heading for a one-world government with Islamic being the one-world religion,” she said, alluding to a belief among some that the Christian president is, in fact, a Muslim.
“He’s the worst president I’ve ever heard of," she said.
Such strong sentiments are astir in this community, some 30 miles southeast of Austin, with news of the military's plans for a multi-state training exercise this summer.
Blogs and commentators at the fringes of political debate suggest the plans are a guise for something nefarious - a suspicion lent some credibility last week when Abbott, the Republican governor, requested that the Texas State Guard keep an eye on things.
But County Judge Paul Pape downplayed the notion that Bastrop, a city of about 7,000, is an extremist hotbed, despite its protests over the Jade Helm 15 exercises planned for leased private property and military sites.
Some of those exercises will happen in this area. A representative of the U.S. Army was dispatched to Bastrop last week to allay residents' fears.
Reports from the community meeting indicate mixed success.
“My impression is that there are some genuinely concerned citizens in Bastrop County,” Pape said. “There has been a general lack of trust between them and the federal government."
Local fears drawn upon reports that Pape ascribes to "certain alternative media and social media."
"The truth is that some make a living from promoting that fear and mistrust," he said.
The community has been home to a military base, Camp Swift, for decades. And Pape said residents are accustomed to seeing troops engaged in training exercises.
Most people in town trust the government, he said, and they certainly support the military.
“There are National Guard training out there pretty much every weekend," he said.
But Kim Casper, 58, a contractor, said he thinks otherwise about Jade Helm 15.
The prospect of martial law - and military-run government - may not be imminent, he said.
“But I get a sense that it’s preparation for the possibility that that could happen in the future," Casper said.
"I think that people are fearful of some worldwide catastrophic event - World War III - and that the government will need to do something to make sure things don’t get out of control," he said.
Casper noted one map in circulation connected to Jade Helm 15 highlights Texas as hostile territory. While military planners may ascribe the label to creative license associated with war games, Casper said it can't be coincidence given Texans' fierce independence.
All of that aside, Casper said he'll go on believing that the "military is here to protect us … until I see otherwise."
Ali Heineman, 22, doesn't like the idea that military exercises can spill over into civilian life.
She noted that local police have recently acquired a special operations SWAT truck.
“I’ve been told they were going to be doing road checks at random times and blocking the roads" during Jade Helm, said Heineman. “I feel like that’s overstepping.”
But area resident Nick Browning wasn’t sweating it.
Browning, 24, said uniformed members of the National Guard are regulars at the auto parts store where he works.
“I think they’re blowing this out of proportion,” he said. “I think nothing's going to happen."
Should the worst come to pass, Browning said he can always head to the countryside beyond Bastrop, where his grandfather lives and has plenty of food, water and "rounds for the zombie apocalypse."
“He’s not worried about it," he said.
John Austin covers the Statehouse for CNHI's Texas newspapers.