The company insists that it trains only sworn professionals, but the center’s website declares that Oak Grove offers “all [its] capabilities to Department of Defense, government agencies, Law Enforcement, healthcare, commercial and non-profit organizations.”
The residents of tiny Hoffman have serious questions about what’s actually going on at the end of their road. They could deal with the noise from shooting, but when Oak Grove clients started blowing stuff up a stone’s throw from their backyards, life became pretty unbearable.
Roderick Brower imagined building his own house here, in his family’s home place, beside its large rye field, beneath its towering pines. This September, pink petunias were still blooming in the pots hanging outside his mother Barbara’s kitchen, but she and Roderick have had to move away on account of the explosions happening at all hours.
It’s not noisy like truck traffic or thunder, they told me. It’s shake-the-windows, rattle-your-bones, drive-even-hunting-dogs-up-the-walls noisy.
Barbara, 81, has a heart condition, so Roderick was worried.
His worries intensified when he watched an armed insurrection take over the Capitol on January 6. The rioters in D.C. looked a whole lot like those the guys racing up his road. Long beards and bumper stickers, dark glasses, driving at speed—the men coming to Oak Grove didn’t look like “sworn professionals” to him.
Who’s training in Hoffman? According to a report this September from the Costs of War project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Pentagon spending totaled over $14 trillion over the course of the war of Afghanistan—with one-third to half going to for-profit contractors. Alongside caterers and cleaners and the manufacturers of tanks and planes, today’s contractors include companies training not only current and former military and cops and private guards, but also civilians seeking to be more “prepared.”
In addition to Oak Grove and the infamous Blackwater (now renamed Academi, which was founded in N.C.’s Dismal Swamp in 1998), North Carolina is home to Frontline, Spartan, The Range and others—all of them offering realistic combat and live fire training to government, corporate and private individuals. Grassroots activists organizing across this state are concerned about a seemingly unmonitored flow of military-grade weapons, training, and white warrior ideology out of North Carolina’s privatized military and into civilian lives.
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One of the many veterans charged in relation to the Capitol attacks is a former Marine who according to federal indictments attended training camp in North Carolina last December. Another, Laura Lee Steele, moved into “private armed security” after 13 years as a police K-90 officer and SWAT team member in North Carolina.
“Alongside the militarization of the police, we’re seeing the militarization of the populace,” says veteran anti-racist author and activist Mab Segrest. As a staff person for North Carolinians Against Racist and Religious Violence (NCARRV) in the 1980s Segrest worked with a coalition of local and national groups to gather the evidence that ultimately led to the disbanding of two of the state’s three major hate groups and the prosecution of Glenn Miller, the leader of the White Patriot Party, an armed racist group, for violating North Carolina’s 1981 anti-paramilitary training statue
In collaboration with activists from BluePrintNC, including participants from NARAL ProChoice NC, and Bend the Arc, this March Segrest produced a report, “Go There Ready for War—Militia Organizing in North Carolina in the Context of the Insurrection at the US Capitol” which sounded an alarm about what she considers a “para/military industrial complex” growing in the backwoods of this land.
“I don’t think people had any idea then there would be this kind of secondary or tertiary effect to privatization, where you’d have these ranges all throughout the United States, aligned with the surge in militia and 3 percenters and all these patriot groups,” says North Carolina resident Matthew Hoh, a former Marine who resigned from his post in Afghanistan over the escalation of that war.
Gun sales skyrocketed after Barack Obama’s election, Hoh recalls. “You don’t just want to look at [your new] assault rifle. You want to use it.” Private training facilities provide that opportunity. They also give veterans jobs and a way to monetize the skills earned by countless Americans over decades of war, and they give civilians a chance to do things they’ve only seen in movies—or on social media.
Estimates show that 10-to-20 million Americans are so called “preppers”—a term those in question prefer to “survivalist.” Preparedness varies, but FEMA’s 2018 survey revealed that 88.1 percent of “Highly Resilient Citizens” are white.
North Carolina’s laws are remarkably friendly toward armed civilians. As of December 1, 2011, North Carolinians had the legal right to defend themselves with deadly force anywhere they have a right to be: at home, in a vehicle, even at work. There is no “duty to retreat” in face of an intruder—and responding with deadly force is permitted if you “reasonably believe” that such force is necessary to prevent death or bodily harm.
In North Carolina, where military spending makes up almost 13 percent of the state’s gross annual budget, military contracts are good for business.
“We don’t assemble F-35 strike fighters here. We don’t make aircraft carriers.… Over 50 percent of our defense contracting is in services like training,” says Scott Dorney of the North Carolina Military Business Center (NCMBC)
Will Wright of Raeford/Hoke Economic Development distributes a glossy multipage folder promoting North Carolina as the “All American Defense Corridor.”
“We welcome the military and military businesses here,” he says, and backwoods training sites promise easy money. “We’re not spending much money, and they kind of fly under the radar…. They’re not requiring major infrastructure, asking for new roads to be put in. They just bring in jobs and money to the economy,” Wright told me.
Frontline Defense—a sniper school based in Warrenton—boasts that it’s “one of 10 centers in the county that offers “long distance shooting in real world scenarios.”
“Twenty twenty was our best year ever,” says Dorney. The DOD awarded $6.1 billion to private companies in 83 of 100 North Carolina counties. Oak Grove Technologies, which runs the tactical center in Hoffman, received 55 contracts, worth over $90 million.
The company is directly involved Fort Bragg’s live-action role-playing exercise called Robin Sage, in which civilian volunteers as well as soldiers and Special Forces students trained this year “to help a guerrilla force overthrow the government in a fictional country known as Pineland,” according to a report by the Charlotte News&Observer.
On the weekend I visited Hoffman, the flag of Fieldcraft Survival was flying at the entrance to Oak Grove on Rushing Road. Based in Huber, Utah, Fieldcraft recently opened an office in Aberdeen, a 15-minute drive away from Hoffman. It offers military-grade training to retired and active duty personnel, but also survival and weapons training to civilians. That day’s course was on edible plants.
This August, advertising on Instagram, Chief Operations Officer Kevin P. Owens offered a “sneak peek” at a home defense course Fieldcraft was offering: “a phenomenal facility that has all kinds of cool training venues for us. Normally, they don’t let civilians train here. It’s for military law enforcement only, but they believe in the mission.”
What’s the mission? Owens, who is a decorated sniper with close to 30 years’ experience, much of it in special forces, was recruited to Fieldcraft by retired Green Beret Mike Glover, with whom he launched American Contingency, a messaging and nationwide mentoring group they formed in July 2020: “We wanted to provide guidance and mentorship for groups to organically grow and stand for the principles of American Contingency: You are your own first responder, you need to be prepared to protect yourself, your family, and your community.”
In American Contingency’s first video podcast, Owens and Glover describe the anti-fascist group Antifa and Black Lives Matter as “terrorist” organizations. Owens also stoked fears about defunded police departments and a Biden presidency. “That will lead to civil war, and it will be patriot versus socialist basically,” said Owens. “At a certain point you’ve got to fight for America.”
Glover has claimed that American Contingency is “not a militia.” Owens hung up on this reporter. But MilitiaWatch and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (which monitor paramilitary activity across the US and globally, with support from, among others, the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and the US State Department) included American Contingency on their list of nine large, multistate, right-wing groups that could present problems on Election Day. Alongside the Three Percenters, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and others, the group’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were subsequently shut down.
Fieldcraft Survival’s feed continues. On October 1, @FieldcraftSurvival (351k followers) posted a news clipping about an African American “possible intruder” mauled to death by a homeowner’s dogs. The post received 17,540 likes and lots of comments like @bonnie911’s: “Who’s a good boy🙌.”
The Browers and their neighbors have tried “See something/Say something” to no avail. Roderick’s uncle Lonnie has compiled an extensive list of all the explosions he’s heard at Oak Grove. It’s hard to see how all the blasting and breaching would not violate the county’s zoning ordinances, which specifically ban “excessive and unnecessary” noise. It’s equally hard to understand how an entity that routinely discharges military-grade weapons in an unfenced facility near residential property received a permit at all. But it did.
When the company filed for a conditional-use permit for the Hoffman site in December 2011, the land was zoned “agricultural, residential” and the county commissioners had to be satisfied that Oak Grove’s proposed military training center would operate in “harmony with the area” and not “materially endanger” public health and safety, or “substantially injure” property values.
Hoffman Mayor Tommy Hart, a Methodist minister, lives and preaches in town. He has no evidence tying Oak Grove to January 6, but he says a lot of constituents are asking questions. He’s petitioned the company to stop breach training at least during Sunday church services—as it once promised—but there’s little else he can do. Hoffman’s not a wealthy place. In the past 20 years, the town has won just one DOD contract, worth $10,147, while Richmond County’s won 88, worth over $14 million, according to the data compiled by the NCMBC.
The county, not the town, granted Oak Grove’s land-use permit, and it barely investigated, admits Commissioner Donald Bryant, who was on the board at the time. He regrets that now.
A couple of months ago, Bryant requested a tour of the Oak Grove center. He and Mayor Hunt were led into a building about the size of a high school gym, where he says he saw “500” assorted weapons on display.
“If I’m back here and take training and I see this stuff. Why couldn’t I get a group of idiots together and come take this over?” He asks now. “We don’t need to train crazies. We just don’t,” sighs Bryant.
When asked by this reporter about the weapons at its tactical training center in Hoffman, and how it screen its clients for possible paramilitary ties, Oak Grove Technologies refused to comment.
Half an hour away from Hoffman, residents in neighboring Hoke county managed to stop a company called Reservoir International that sought to expand its footprint on the outskirts of Raeford, the county seat. Alerted to the plans, veteran activists created an effective coalition of diverse local stakeholders and—with the help of some well-heeled landowners, environmentalists, and an effective lawyer—Reservoir’s application was vigorously contested and denied by the Hoke County Board of Commissioners, a majority of whose members were people of color.
The Hoke County NAACP branch secretary, Christina McCoy Davis, who worked with Segrest at NCARRV years ago and now works with the Hoffman community, was in the hearing room when the decision came down.
She was elated. “What was at stake in on that day was again the safety and security of our communities.”
For more on the work that the BlueprintNC network is doing to document how communities are building safety in a time of violent insurrection, catch The Laura Flanders Show on PBS stations, community radio, and streaming. Premiers Sunday, October 24, 11.30 am ET. See LauraFlanders.org for details. Mab Segrest and Christina McCoy Davis provided research assistance.