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Unlike At Vieques, This Town Welcomes The Sound Of Bombs
by Esther Schrader
July 15, 2001
LAWTON, Okla. -- To the people of Vieques, Puerto Rico, the boom- boom-boom of the U.S. military using their island for target practice is the sound of imperialism.
But in this prairie city, where the Army has for decades tested its live guns, bombs, missiles and rockets on a sprawling base just two miles from City Hall, it is the sound of cash registers ringing.
Residents of this deeply conservative city, proud of their link to the military-training center, have another name for it. They call it "the sound of freedom."
In Lawton, the din from Fort Sill, the army's premier artillery training center, regularly shatters windows, glasses and vases, and rocks pictures off kilter. Training accidents have killed nine soldiers since 1989 and injured more than two dozen others.
On certain days, when the temperature and humidity are right, the odor of cordite, the powder component in artillery rounds, wafts across the town. Bombs send frightened children scurrying down to storm shelters in the middle of the night.
But in this wind-whipped place in the heart of tornado country, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't welcome the disruption.
The clamor of artillery means jobs. The jobs mean prosperity. And Fort Sill, a military base founded as a cavalry outpost during the Indian Wars, means something less tangible but no less critical to the people of Lawton: an identity, a mission, a reason to be proud of where they live.
In an era when a growing number of communities are fighting the military's presence as an unwelcome disruption to their quality of life, the Pentagon is examining places like Lawton to understand what has made the chemistry work.
"We do live with the boom-boom-boom of artillery fire 24 hours a day, but it's very interesting about living here, you just don't hear it anymore," said Leo Baxter, who retired as commanding general at Fort Sill in 1989 and is now a Lawton banker. "That's the price you pay when you live in a community like this. To us, it is oddly comforting. It's the sound of a healthy economy and a viable place to live."
Lawton is no Vieques, people here would be the first to say. The Puerto Rican island, owned in large part by the U.S. Navy, has been the focus of intense protests since 1999, when a civilian guard was accidentally killed during a bombing exercise. Last month, after 60 years as a simulated war zone in the training of thousands of sailors in the Atlantic Fleet, the Navy announced it will pull out of Vieques in 2003.
The 9,000 people on Vieques have almost no link to the Navy, which trains on the two-thirds of the island it owns, about nine miles from the populated part of the island. Because the Navy's two installations on Vieques are largely training facilities, where personnel are brought in for short, intensive exercises and then depart, they never gave rise to the kind of community life and businesses catering to the military that usually spring up around a U.S. base.
Instead, in an area where tourism dollars are often the only dollars, the constant bombing of Vieques hindered the hotel and restaurant development that could have bettered the lives of residents.
The lives of the people of Lawton, by contrast, could not be more deeply intertwined with the presence of Fort Sill. The fort was established in 1869, 32 years before the city of Lawton was incorporated. The city was named after Army Gen. Henry W. Lawton, who pursued and captured the Apache chief Geronimo in 1886. Geronimo is buried at Fort Sill.
In the city of about 100,000 about an hour and a half southwest of Oklahoma City, more than 21,000 people work at the base. Of 17,600 students of Lawton schools, 43 percent are children of military or other federal workers connected with the base. The school system gets $3.4 million a year in federal aid to offset the presence of the base in the district.
All told, Fort Sill officials estimate the base pumped $972 million into the Lawton economy last year.
There is another factor at play here too: a rooted, middle- America brand of patriotism and support for the military and its mission. More than 10 percent of Lawton's residents are military retirees. The city's voters are overwhelmingly Republican and overwhelmingly pro-military.
"When I hear those guns out there popping, that's the sound of freedom ringing in my ears," said Lawton Mayor Cecil Powell. "That's the freedom bells ringing. Those are the guns that are going to be fired if we have to defend the United States of America."
But neither a shared economy nor a shared history is always enough to maintain the difficult balance between the needs of the military and the needs of the communities that border its training facilities on 7.2 million acres of government lands throughout the United States and its territories.
Until about 20 years ago, the Pentagon was, for the most part, insensitive to local concerns around its training ranges. But now, with noise complaints, environmental concerns and fights over air quality and shared airspace mounting in many of the places the military fires its rockets, flies its supersonic planes, launches its missiles and tests its howitzers, the military is trying to work out compromises where it feels it can.
Pentagon planners are working with local government officials to encourage zoning restrictions that would place warehouses and factories, rather than private homes, near its testing sites. In others, they work out deals with cellular phone companies for use of the radio frequencies.
"In Fort Sill, the range is connected to the base, so people understand the mission," said John Walsh, who as an analyst on training-range issues for the secretary of defense is charged with coming up with a response to the growing hostility toward training in areas like Vieques .
"Where there's a facility there, there's instantly more interdependence between the community and the facility. One of the problems in Vieques was there just wasn't a lot of economic interdependence. We don't understand completely what went wrong there, but we know for some reason, it didn't work out."
In Lawton, commanding officers newly posted to Fort Sill work at City Hall for several weeks in an internship designed to get them involved in issues of concern to the city. Officers from the base serve as ex-officio members of the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the school board. Local schoolchildren play Little League and soccer games on fields at the base. Townspeople are welcome at the base golf course. And soldiers posted at the base partner up with local businesses in volunteer projects and mentor children in schools.
"It's not something that occurred overnight. Someone didn't just flip a switch and all of a sudden that was just fine and dandy," said Nancy Elliott, a Fort Sill spokeswoman. "There has been a lot of effort over the years to make it all work."
The work appears to have paid off.
Since May 1, 2000, there have been 328 days of live fire on Fort Sill. During that time, the military dropped more than 7,650 bombs, launched 1,654 rockets and fired 101,122 artillery rounds. But in the same time, there have been fewer than 10 noise complaints, according to base officials.
Even on Oak Dale Avenue, where the lushly landscaped yards and swimming pools of opulent houses back right up to the base, the Army does not appear to have made enemies.
"I don't notice it that much," said Edward Legako, a pediatrician who lives with his wife and three children in a richly decorated home just yards from where cannons are sometimes tested on the base.
"Frankly, I bought the place partly because I knew there could be no development behind me. People from out of town will come in and say, `What's that? It sounds like a bomb,' but I don't even notice it. At 6 a.m., I might feel things rattling a little bit, but I guess it's like the freeway roar to people in L.A. I roll over and go right back to sleep."