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New York Post

It's The Training, Governor

John Podhoretz

April 17, 2001
Copyright © 2001 N.Y.P. Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

'Thank God for the training," said Senior Chief Petty Officer Nicholas Mellos upon his return to American continental soil on Saturday. Was George Pataki listening?

New York's Republican governor has staked out a position that would deny tens of thousands of Navy personnel like Mellos the training they desperately need to protect themselves and the United States - as part of a ludicrous Hail Mary play to garner votes from the heavily Democratic Puerto Rican community in our state.

Mellos' words on Saturday were echoed by his 23 crewmates, whose extraordinary conduct following their plane's midair collision with a Chinese fighter saved their own lives and the plane itself - and reportedly kept important American intelligence assets from becoming the property of the Chinese military.

"There was definitely a moment in time where we were all kind of in shock and didn't believe what was going on," said Lt. Patrick Honcek, "but once we were able to put that behind us and fall back on our training, [we] pretty much just made it happen."

Technician David Cecka: "It was a real hard, hard bang, and then a second, and then a very loud bang . . . [We] heard [the] command to bail out, and our training took over after that."

They performed heroics, these 24 Americans - but they were able to be heroic because they knew just what to do should a horrific incident such as this befall them and their craft. They kept their heads about them because they could act automatically - because of their training.

The crew of the EP-3 was in Chinese custody when George Pataki took a three-day trip to Puerto Rico - a trip explicitly designed to deny the crew's fellow Navy personnel who serve in the Atlantic Ocean the training they desperately need.

For 60 years, the Navy and Marines have trained for combat on and around the island of Vieques , east of the main island of Puerto Rico . In 1999, a bombing accident caused the death of a civilian sentry - and ignited a firestorm of protest that has spread from the small community of Puerto Rican independence activists all the way to the governor's mansion in Albany.

The activists are demanding the Navy leave Vieques , using a panoply of sadly familiar tactics. They staged a yearlong sit-in at the base. A Mississippi law firm is suing the Navy on their behalf, claiming residue from the bombs is causing a spike in cancer rates among the 9,300 residents of the island - though the study they cite conveniently left out three years of statistics smack dab in the middle and is, therefore, invalid. The Navy has been accused of violating environmental regulations - though the Pentagon has turned much of the island into a nature preserve. The Navy owns two-thirds of Vieques , of which only 2 percent is used for training runs.

The present and former governors of Puerto Rico have made it a point of pride to insist on the Navy's departure. And Bill Clinton, whose wife was beginning her run for Senate, agreed to limit training missions - despite the fact that as the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, he was endangering the lives of the men and women in the military by doing so.

Vieques is not just any facility. It is the only place in the Atlantic where Navy and Marine personnel can train for air, sea and land combat missions. "The unique characteristics of Vieques make it virtually irreplaceable," according to the Heritage Foundation's Jack Spencer.

A report by an independent commission appointed by Clinton concluded that "at present there are no potential sites that can meet the current stated requirement for combined-arms live-fire training," and that "alternative training methods for the combined-arms exercises most essential for readiness are not currently feasible or available."

These days, Americans expect the U.S. military to conduct unbelievably clean combat missions, with pinpoint bombing raids and no collateral damage. That cannot be accomplished without Vieques .

So why did George Pataki go to Puerto Rico ? Why did he ask President Bush to continue the suspension of training runs there (to which the administration briefly assented before announcing that the training would resume this week)? Because he's facing a formidable challenge in 2002 and thinks he can win over some Puerto Rican voters.

It's a ridiculous ploy, given that Puerto Ricans in this state are as reliably Democratic in orientation as blacks and Jews. But even if it were a canny strategy, it would still be grotesquely irresponsible.

Just ask the brave crew of the EP-3.


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