This story was published in The VICTORIA ADVOCATE NEWSPAPER on Sunday, August 17, 2008
-Written by Victoria Advocate Reporter GABE SEMENZA

HONDURAS -- When the sun sets, this country's political instability is awakened by the buzz of rebel fighting in the forests. So the government here hired an elite Victoria military team - the Nightstalkers- to change that.

During a recent night raid, the group allowed three journalists to join it.
The jungle was so dark that Echo-2 couldn't see the tripwire. "I'm hit," he yelled. Lights flashed red and a piercing alarm dropped team members to a knee. The journalists dropped to their bellies. Papa-7, the Victoria team's commander, ordered others to move to the front.
He whispered into his microphone and asked for updates. "What do you see up there?" Papa 7 said. Without night vision, the team couldn't spot Cesar Ortie, a Guatemalan sniper hidden somewhere in the thick brush ahead.

The Honduran government hired the Nightstalkers to capture or kill troublemakers more than 10 years ago. The mission continues today.  There is just one catch: The bullets and explosions aren't real - and neither is Cesar Ortie.

Who are these guys? The Nightstalkers are a local airsoft team that formed through Victoria MilSim, a nonprofit group of military simulation enthusiasts. Airsoft means the guns shoot plastic BBs. Since 1996, these military junkies have met most Saturday nights to simulate the search for and capture of terrorists.

Their battleground is just outside Victoria, Texas in an undisclosed slice of forest. They fear the ground would be rushed by pranksters if the location is published.

Phil Robbins, the team's commander, creates new scenarios each week and then briefs the team before slinking into the woods. The terrorists, played by other locals, set traps and tripwires and then blend into the forest.  "You actually get tense. You actually get nervous and sometimes a little bit scared," Robbins said. "We always do this at night. You don't know where they are. You don't know what they're going to do."

How real does it get? Before the late-night operation and during the daytime, Robbins hiked a few hundred yards into the forest, veered into the thick brush and then up a small hill. He stepped on dead plants and leaves to veil his footprints. Vines, banana spiders, semi-tropical trees and the sounds of a busy forest help visitors feel as if they've stepped deep into Honduras.

Robbins walked beyond sandbags, across a small wooden bridge - which spans a deep bunker - and then plunged toward a dense grove. A rich, natural canopy hides the camp inside.

Camp Onion is the team's base - a quarter-acre trophy that could easily be mistaken for the real thing. Inside: Satellites, tools, lanterns, a tactical operation center, desk, medical and cooking supplies, chalkboard and interrogation tent. Pinned to a tree, a sign reads: "Victoria Military Simulation." 

Limbs border the camp's dirt floor, which is raked, swept and tidy. Training trails, courses and green Army mesh surround the camp.

The nine-person team roster - which includes one woman - wears authentic gear and operates using current military tactics. The team includes civilians and former and current U.S. servicemen. "Victoria MilSim made me feel like I was back in Special Forces training," one U.S. Marines sergeant said.

Robert Keith, 21, plays one of the good guys. "For me, it's getting into character and feeling how real it is," Keith said. "It feels like you're actually there."

What do they do?  At night on Saturday, July 19, members gathered at the battleground's border. "From this point forward, what we do is go into character," said Robbins, the commander. "We're in Honduras, Central America. We go into character for the rest of the night."

This night, he showed his five-member team a photo of Cesar Ortie, played by Bryan Eller, 20. Eller wanted to join the military but broke his neck in a 2005 car wreck. "This is the next best thing," he said. While Eller hid in the forest, Robbins' group inched through the dark to find him.

The team sidestepped and triggered tripwires dodged a rain of BBs and ducked when Eller threw firecracker grenades. After two hours of hunting and a 20-minute gun battle, the team captured the terrorist. They bound Eller - who never broke character - and dragged him to Camp Onion. There, they searched him and interrogated him.

Some nights, they don't find the terrorist. Other nights they find several.

Adam Bourg, 20, plays a good guy. "This gives you stuff that can only be experienced from what you see when you go out there," Bourg said.

Shawn Meeker, 23, added, "It's a rush of adrenaline. Your heart's constantly deciding whether it's going to jump out of your skin. I absolutely love the strategy, the stealth."

For those who say they should grow up, Dustin Oliver, 19, has an answer. "Most people who do the teasing don't get it. They look at it as a couple of guys who go shoot BBs at night," he said. "If you don't like it then you don't like it. If you like it, great."

For Robbins, military strategy is a lifelong passion. He turned the interest into a healthy hobby. "Here, there are no drugs, no alcohol and no attitudes," Robbins said. "The camaraderie is great. It's like a family."

Source:  Victoria Advocate Newspaper, Victoria, Texas