Commandos train in Agassiz School

Land chopper on roof

U.S. military commandos practiced raids in the shuttered Agassiz Elementary School last month, including a nighttime helicopter landing on the school’s roof, the Gazette has learned.

The elite special forces training was done without notice to nearby residents. No live ammo or explosives were involved and safety measures were taken, according to military spokesperson Kim Tiscione.

A vaguely worded July 25 press release from the Mayor’s Office announced citywide “military training exercises,” including helicopters, through Aug. 5. In fact, the exercises were top-secret training for the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), whose commandos recently killed terrorist Osama bin Laden, Tiscione told the Gazette.

“I know a lot of it can look really different when it’s in your own back yard,” Tiscione said of the training, which included the two-minute helicopter landing around 9 p.m. on July 28. “Safety is absolutely something we are concerned about.”

“It was really scary,” said resident Sara Wermiel, whose house is just feet from the 12 Child St. school and was bombarded by a “sandstorm” kicked up by the chopper.

“It just seems nuts to me,” said Wermiel. “Don’t they have a site where they could do this where they wouldn’t be alarming people and creating a sandstorm?”

About 30 residents were drawn to the scene by the noise of the helicopter, Tiscione said, adding that Boston Police officers and other safety officers explained what was happening.

Wermiel said the explanation was far from clear, with officers saying that the event was “practice in case there were terrorists at the school.”

Among the astonished residents was Andrew Joslin, who told the Gazette he spotted the unmarked chopper create a “dust storm on the [basketball and tennis] courts full of people” at the South Street Mall before landing on the school’s roof.

Commandos also were inside the school, which Boston Public Schools closed this year.

“We have been training at the school,” Tiscione said, explaining that troops practiced raiding and search techniques. “They need to be able to clear and secure an unfamiliar environment,” she said.

Asked whether the helicopter or troops carried ammo, Tiscione said, “Nope, not at all.” The troops use weapons containing “Simunition,” a mock ammo that is essentially a military-grade paintball, she said.

The overall purpose of training in Boston was to practice urban military operations, Tiscione said. One reason for choosing Boston was that it is not commonly used like some other cities are, so it provides challenges for troops, she said. The citywide training wrapped up Aug. 5, and no further activity was planned for JP, she said.

“We’ve got to be prepared for wherever we go. This is the peak of our training,” she said, adding that the JP training was “absolutely” successful.

USSOCOM did not notify local residents about the training because of its secret nature, Tiscione said. Indeed, she would not even identify what branch of the military she was speaking for until pressed by the Gazette.

“We’re from Special Operations,” Tiscione acknowledged, referring to the umbrella organization of all four military branches’ special forces. “I’m kind of being vague on purpose. It’s more of a challenge for us when people know who we are.”

She said that USSOCOM does not want people recording the training, which is even more of a danger with the special forces’ popularity in the wake of the Bin Laden killing.

“They don’t want to give away any of their secrets,” said Mayor’s Office spokesperson Christopher Loh. He noted that secrecy helps ensure safety by reducing the number of people out watching an operation.

Asked whether the City was concerned about the risks of landing a helicopter without warning in a residential area, Loh said that city officials coordinated safety measures with the military. That included a Boston Police presence.

“I would caution you to make a judgment about safety,” Loh said. “Obviously, this is one of the world’s great fighting forces. They know what they’re doing.”

A Gazette review of international news articles found that, since 2010, there have been at least seven non-combat crashes of U.S. military helicopters. A total of seven troops died in those accidents, at least three of which involved training flights. That includes a training crash just this week in Georgia that killed two special forces aviators.

And in the famous May 1 killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan, one of two helicopters carrying the USSOCOM commandos made a minor crash-landing while entire the raid site, forcing them to abandon the chopper.

A military helicopter was shot down last week in Afghanistan, killing 22 Navy SEAL commandos.

Wermiel said she is concerned about the risk of landing of a chopper on the Agassiz School.

“That’s what they were practicing, I guess—landing in a confined space,” she said. “I don’t see why they had to do it here.”

“I just hope it doesn’t happen again,” Wermiel said, adding that there is no way to know due to the secrecy.

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