Downtown residents were roused from sleep — and not a few were made anxious — by the persistent roar of helicopters from about 11 p.m. Friday to 1 a.m. Saturday. Sunday, Mayor Mark Stodola responded to a question from Kathy Wells, president of the Coalition of Greater Little Rock Neighborhoods, to say this was a military exercise by the same unit that found Osama bin Laden.
Would have been nice if people had known ahead of time what the noise was all about — as opposed to say a manhunt for a dangerous criminal.
After a Freedom of Information Act request by the Times and phone calls from the Pentagon on down, it was finally revealed that an Army Special Operations unit oversaw the training exercise, one of many conducted around the country to get units prepared for unfamiliar terrain. Vacant skyscrapers are hard to come by and so the vacant former VA hospital on Roosevelt Road proved a useful target for troops dropping by ropes from helicopters, which also used warehouse property on the eastern side of Interstate 30 as a staging area.
The agreement with the Army called for public notice, including door-to-door advance notice in the affected neighborhood. Didn't happen. The Little Rock police said they thought the Army was to do the notice. The Army said they thought police would provide notice. But the Army also said it understood the city had agreed not to give any advance notice so as to avoid encouraging gawkers.
Mayor Stodola finally manned up Monday afternoon, after a fashion. He said in response to our questions: "Public notice and fliers were supposed to be distributed door to door. I was assured that this would happen when I was briefed about this exercise on September 7th as I expressed the same concern that you and others have expressed. I had no further contact with the military as they were to work with our LRPD. Apparently someone dropped the ball."