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Deseret News

Bush Staff Erred In Announcing Closure Of Vieques

by Rep. James V. Hansen

June 24, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Deseret News Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved.

America promises its service men and women we won't send them into harm's way without adequate training. If we turn our back on the unique Navy and Marine training available on the Puerto Rican Island of Vieques , we are breaking that promise and putting their safety at risk.

For 60 years, American service men and women have received essential combat training on Vieques . It has played a key role training our men and women for every world conflict since World War II. The island's unique location and topography have made it the "crown jewel" of U.S. training ranges in the Atlantic.

The realistic training on the island has saved countless American lives. Sadly, American lives have been lost in this debate. They've been eclipsed by unsubstantiated claims of harm to Vieques residents.

If there was evidence of real harm to the 9,400 Vieques residents because of military training there, I would be among the first to call for a halt. But study after study has shown no evidence of risk. Medical experts from Johns Hopkins University have resoundingly discredited the latest claims of echocardiographic abnormalities.

The people of Vieques live nine miles from the nearest bombing. There are people in my home state of Utah who live closer than that to the Air Force's bombing range on Utah's western desert. People in Oklahoma live less than two miles from the gunnery range at Fort Sill. These Americans have not claimed physical harm.

Perhaps the lack of actual harm explains why so few Vieques residents are involved in this debate. Of the 180 protesters arrested for trespassing there last month, only a handful were from Vieques . Most were from New York and the main island of Puerto Rico .

The genesis of these untrue claims of harm can be traced to a tiny group of Puerto Ricans who want to use the issue to pursue a nationalistic, anti-U.S., Puerto Rican independence agenda. They have used baseless claims to draw in others who have neither taken the time to look at the facts or have their own political axes to grind.

By contrast, we face a clear threat to the lives and safety of our young men and women -- including Puerto Ricans who serve in our military -- if we halt this training. The danger to the people of other nations whom we defend is even more appalling. For example, the torture and murder of Kuwaitis when they were invaded by Iraq or the horrifying attempted genocide of Albanians in the recent Balkan conflict.

Headlines from that recent Balkan conflict certainly underscored how inadequately prepared some of our men and women were for that conflict. It unquestionably underscored our national need for more training, not less.

The people of Puerto Rico and the United States are united in citizenship. We are both better for it. The ongoing training on Vieques is only one of several benefits we gain from our strong ties to Puerto Rico .

The Puerto Rican people receive more than $12 billion in federal revenues annually, yet they pay no federal income tax. They receive an additional $4.6 billion in direct loans, guaranteed loans and insurance. Congress' recent education package will provide $630 million to the children of Puerto Rico . That's more than 43 states will receive.

Puerto Rico is part of our national family. It shares in the benefits and responsibilities that come with citizenship, including the responsibility to provide for the common defense. I believe most Puerto Ricans understand this and are committed to defending our great nation.

Sadly, Puerto Rico 's Gov. Calderon wants the benefits of U.S. citizenship with none of the responsibilities. The people of Vieques share the same burden as 33 U.S. communities that host a live-fire military training range. These American communities understand and fulfill our shared obligation to provide for our national defense. Why should Vieques become a political exception at the expense of our service men and women's lives and safety?

I believe President Bush's staff was hasty in announcing a departure from Vieques without consulting their own Pentagon military experts and relevant House and Senate committees. The staff was imprudent to make this announcement without having a firm alternative in hand.

That alternative will not be easy to find. A special 1999 Defense Department panel reported to President Clinton that Vieques is unique and vital to our nation's defense. The panel noted that none of 18 alternative sites reviewed by the Navy meet the current requirements for combined arms live fire training.

Vieques plays an undisputed, vital role in the defense of our country, including Puerto Rico . It plays a key role in the defense of more vulnerable nations we are often called upon to protect. Any decision about the Navy's future on Vieques should be made in light of that larger significance and not as the result of political pressure brought to bear by one governor, a few Hollywood actors and a handful of protesters.

Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1980. He is senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the House Resources Committee.

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