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Insight on the News

Washington Times


Q: Should The Navy Abandon Its Bombing Range In Puerto Rico?

Anibal Acevedo-Vila .. James M Inhofe

July 30, 2001
Copyright © 2001 Washington Times Corporation. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2001 ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.




End the U.S. Navy's outdated and unnecessary training on the island of Vieques. President George W Bush recently acknowledged that the people of Vieques have been hurt and that the time has come for the Navy to leave. Vieques no longer is adequate for Navy training. . Vieques is vital for U.S. national security, and the Navy enjoys local support there.

Acevedo, a Democrat, is Puerto Rico 's Resident Commissioner in Washington and represents Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress. He previously served as a local lawmaker.

Retired Adm. Jack Shanahan of the US. 2nd Atlantic Fleet has said that the current Navy training on Vieques is neither unique nor, in most instances, necessary for modern amphibious warfare. Shanahan also stated, "Large-scale beach amphibious operations, which the Navy claims is a critical reason why it must continue to train on Vieques , are outmoded and have not been used since the Korean War."

Navy personnel have testified that the current use of inert ammunition is not satisfactory and that these maneuvers are a waste oftime. Furthermore, the Navy's insistence that inert-ordnance exercises on Vieques are vital to national security actually is detrimental to combat preparedness, given that alternatives exist elsewhere for live-ordnance training.

It is alarming how far civil and human rights of Americans have been compromised. The health and welfare of 9,400 U.S. citizens have been degraded for the sake of this recurrent, anachronistic training. Vieques is the only place in America where civilian populations are subject to ship-to-shore bombardment from Mark 45 guns. Thousands of people have suffered heart problems, which are being linked to the vibrations from these powerful cannons.

Those living on Vieques have a mortality rate 40 percent higher than that of other Puerto Ricans , a 27 percent higher risk of dying from cancer and a 70 percent higher risk of dying from diabetes.

In a brief, two-week study performed without the use of clinical records and without a direct examination of documented evidence, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health found that there were no echocardiographic abnormalities among residents of Vieques . But this two-week study was commissioned and paid for by the Navy.

However, the Johns Hopkins University Medical School, after consulting with the Ponce School of Medicine, now is conducting a much more indepth study. It seeks to explain why the children of Vieques have more health problems than children in the rest of Puerto Rico and whether the bombs are causing the thickening of human arteries.

Without a doubt, more than 60 years of live bombing has devastated this once-beautiful, lush island. The local marine environment and diverse coral-reef habitat are not what they used to be. Countless unexploded ordnance lies in the Live Impact Area (LIA), much of which rests within the coral reef. Vast amounts of unidentified material in 50-gallon drums and compressed-gas cylinders litter the reef A sample of tissue from coral in the LIA has 99,000 parts per million of TNT, raising serious concerns for human health throughout the food chain.

Some of my colleagues say that since Viequenses live at least nine miles from the bombing site, they are not affected by the bombing. After all, some of their constituents live even closer to bombing ranges. However, there are major differences above and beyond the use of the Mark 45 guns.

Viequenses do not live nine miles from a Navy base, with all the subsequent economic and social benefits. Instead, they dodge bullets and watch half-ton bombs veer off target and land dangerously close to their towns. Vieques receives more than its fair share of bombs. In 1998 it absorbed more than half of the entire bombardment from U.S. Navy training nationwide.

There have been accidents where bombs and bullets have landed near towns. The final straw was when Navy jets missed their mark and two 500-pound bombs hit an observation tower, killing David Sanes and wounding four others. Adding to this tragedy is the Navy's accidental, yet unlawful, use of bombs with depleted uranium - a toxic, radioactive agent. The Navy denied using these bombs, but shortly afterwards backpedaled. They found only a handful of the 50-plus rounds and cannot account for the remainder. This negligent behavior is extremely dangerous.

One congressman even believes that Viequenses should allow the Navy to continue to threaten their lives and the environment because, as Puerto Ricans , they don't deserve special treatment. In a recent interview on National Public Radio, Rep. James Hansen, R-Utah, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, stated: "I come down to the idea where I don't see where Puerto Rico should get any favorable treatment over the rest of these people. Now what have they done to get it? They sit down there on welfare and very few of them paying taxes; [they] got a sweetheart deal."

Although the congressman eventually insisted that he "meant no harm to the Puerto Rican people," his continued rhetoric is both misleading and incorrect. Meanwhile, members of Congress have threatened to punish Puerto Ricans over the issue of Vieques by blocking important legislation and eliminating provisions that could benefit Puerto Rico . No member should act in such a punitive manner.

These inconsiderate attitudes, misstatements ofthe facts and inaccurate comments show a lack of respect toward Hispanic Americans - especially toward those Puerto Ricans who have sacrificed for this country.

For the last 100 years, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has had a close political relationship with the United States; Puerto Ricans have served in every war alongside their fellow Americans. For example, in the Korean conflict, in terms of per capita contribution, Puerto Rico ranked second only to Hawaii in men wounded and third in the nation in the categories of battle deaths and total casualties. More than 125,000 veterans live in Puerto Rico today and are proud of their contribution to the American tradition of democracy.

While Puerto Ricans receive some federal funding and do not pay federal income taxes, they pay federal payroll and other taxes. In 1997 alone Puerto Rico paid $2 billion in Social Security taxes. Furthermore, Puerto Ricans pay commonwealth and local taxes. In 42 percent of American households, payroll taxes make up a larger share of taxes than federal income taxes.

Trade between Puerto Rico and the US. mainland is significant. Puerto Rico is the United States' lOth-largest trading partner in the world and purchases more than $19 billion worth of U.S. merchandise. More than 320,000 direct jobs on the U.S. mainland have been created because of this trade.

Although the relationship between North America and Puerto Rico has helped Puerto Rico 's economy grow, Vieques has not experienced the promised economic benefits from the Navy's occupation of two-thirds ofthe island. The lack of economic opportunities can be linked to the Navy's failure to fulfill its promises.

In 1983, the Navy and the government of Puerto Rico signed a "memorandum of understanding" that articulated the rules for the Navy's training practices and obligated it to help with the island-municipality's economic development, to repair environmental damage and to take safety measures during exercises.

These promises were broken from the beginning. Instead of reducing use of live ammunition, the Navy increased it by 25 percent from 1983 to 1998. Instead of increasing economic aid for Vieques , the Navy has failed time and again to provide necessary programs to assist residents. President Bush recently said that it was time the Navy left Vieques because Puerto Ricans are our "friends and neighbors."

Clearly, it's the Navy who has been a bad neighbor. Puerto Ricans of all political parties, Viequenses, Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, U.S. political leaders and people from around the world have united in opposition to the Navy's training in Vieques .

Thousands of people peacefully have demonstrated against the Navy's occupation. Hundreds of citizens have been arrested. Many experienced violations of their civil rights, such as being forced to kneel for hours in an abandoned and roofless dog kennel; being subject to painful and unnecessary body searches; not being permitted to make phone calls; not being allowed to wear life jackets during an ocean crossing; being temporarily blinded with pepper spray while handcuffed; and being incarcerated for unreasonable periods of time. The list of offenses and abuses goes on.

Now President Bush and his advisers agree that it's time to leave Vieques . Vieques isn't the first instance in which civil-- disobedient protesters have convinced a Republican administration that Naval training is unnecessary.

In 1990, shortly before the Persian Gulf War, President George H.W Bush ended the training on the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe. At the time, the commander in chief of the US. Pacific Command said that the island "offers us the only place for the kind of training we need to perform for D6 aircraft, gunfire support [and] amphibious landings." These same words have been used to describe Vieques . Nevertheless, Bush ended the training. No replacement was ever found for Kahoolawe, and yet the Pacific Fleet remains among the best in the world.

There are those who claim that Vieques ' unique location makes it the "crown jewel of the US. training ranges in the Atlantic." However, it's time for that misnomer to be corrected. Vieques is much more than just a training range. Once cleaned up from the devastation and the impact of 60 years of indifference and environmental damage, this beautiful island rightfully could be known as the "crown jewel of the Atlantic."

Should the Navy leave Vieques ? Yes. The training in Vieques is unnecessary and antiquated. After careful consideration, President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other administration officials already answered that question. They made the correct and necessary decision to remove the Navy from Vieques . But they must go further for the healing to begin the bombing must cease immediately.


Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, is ranking member and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on Military Readiness, which oversees training.

Military training at the Navy's firing range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques is vital to US. national security and to the safety and well-being of US. sailors, Marines and aviators. Because US. armed-forces personnel routinely are sent into harm's way for overseas missions in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, the Navy should not abandon this irreplaceable asset but, rather, it should work hard to convince the residents of Vieques to endorse continued live-fire training in the referendum scheduled there for this November.

Because of its unique location and geography, the Vieques range allows our military forces to conduct the kind of integrated live-fire training that is essential for effective combat preparedness. This includes simultaneous ship-to-shore naval gunfire from battleships, air-to-ground fire from F-14s and F-16s deployed from aircraft carriers and beach landings of Marine expeditionary units. Such coordinated training replicates the fully supported amphibious-landing capability that is central to the projection of U.S. strength around the world.

Realistic integrated training of this nature ensures necessary military readiness. It also fulfills an obligation we have to prepare our military personnel to survive and prevail in combat situations. As one former secretary of the Navy recently said, "Many Americans in uniform owe their lives to this crucial training. Many would perish without it."

Our forces must be able to work together as a team and therefore, just as in football, must train together as a team. You can't train the quarterbacks, the linemen and the receivers at separate locations and then expect them to come together successfully on the day of the big game. They must practice together in order to win together.

The Vieques range has several critical advantages as a training site that are difficult, if not impossible, to duplicate at any alternative site:

    1. It is well outside the path of commercial air traffic, allowing pilots to bomb from the high altitudes that replicate combat situations.

    2. It can accommodate ships in deep water within gunfire range of land-based targets without interfering with commercial-shipping traffic.

    3. Its beaches and land formations permit Marine amphibious landings and operations.

    4. It is located near a major Navy facility geared specifically to support the training mission with necessary refueling, resupply and emergency-landing facilities - the US. Naval Station at Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico .

    5. It can accommodate needed live-fire training without posing a danger to nearby civilian populations, as it is located a good 10 miles from any populated area.

The current controversy was ignited two years ago when a Navy-employed civilian guard was killed by an off-target bomb that accidentally landed near an observation post on the range, but still far away from populated areas. Since then, I have worked with senior officers of the Navy and Marine Corps as well as other members of Con

gress to try to identify any alternative sites throughout the world that would provide equivalent training for our East Coast deployments. So far, we have not been able to locate one. I have visited personally almost every suggested viable alternative site, only to find major shortcomings at each.

For example, Cape Wrath in Northern Scotland and Capa Tulado in Southern Sardinia are two possible sites that have been prominently mentioned. At Cape Wrath, I discovered that the very bad winter climate there would preclude year-round integrated training. At Capa Tulado, the Italian government wants to restrict our use of the range to just 22 days a year (compared to 90-160 days normally used at Vieques ). In addition, the Italians say they only will let us train there for missions they approve in advance.

Most recently, I visited another site that is being considered in Kennedy County on the South Texas Gulf Coast. While this would be a good site for some forms of military training, it clearly is not an adequate replacement for Vieques . The site is separated directly from the open ocean by Padre Island National Seashore and the Intracoastal Waterway, with its regular barge traffic and its busy general-aviation airspace. Thus, ship-to-shore naval gunfire and realistic Marine amphibious landings would be precluded.

In 1999, a special Defense Department panel addressed this issue and reviewed an exhaustive Navy study of 18 possible alternative sites. It concluded that "there are no potential sites that can meet the current stated requirements for combined-arms livefire training."

With this as a backdrop, numerous critics and activists including a healthy contingent of Hollywood publicity-seekers, outside agitators and self-serving politicians - are raising a number of environmental and health-related concerns, which they cite as reasons for kicking the Navy out of Vieques , whether or not there is an adequate alternative site. But none of these allegations so far have withstood the kind of objective scrutiny that justifies the abandonment of training that is so important to our national security.

For example, it is alleged that noise from naval gunfire has caused heart maladies among Vieques fishermen and other local residents. Part of the basis for this charge relates to a study of European factory workers who had continuous long-term exposure to close-proximity noise at high-energy levels, not the kind of short-duration, infrequent, low-energy exposures at greater distances experienced in Vieques . After examining this issue, a research team from Johns Hopkins University concluded that "within the constraints of the data available, no inference can be made as to the role of noise from naval gun firing producing echocardiographic abnormalities" and that there is "insufficient basis for reaching a conclusion that Vieques residents have any pericardial thickening or any other heart abnormalities."

It also has been alleged that Vieques has an infant-mortality rate that is 50 percent higher than it is in the rest of Puerto Rico . But when this charge was examined by the Puerto Rican Health Department, the health secretary publicly repudiated the allegation and accused its promoters of "lying to the public." It turned out that the charge was based on statistics that omitted the years 1996 through 1998. With those years included, the infant-mortality rate on Vieques is actually lower than in the rest of Puerto Rico .

Similarly, Navy opponents charge that cancer rates on Vieques are higher than on the mainland of Puerto Rico . Assuming this were true, it might be more readily explained by the island's higher rates of sun exposure, cigarette smoking and vegetable-poor diets than by anything the Navy is doing. But the available data from recent decades indicate that the annual cancer rates on Vieques have varied widely, being higher in some years and lower in others. Overall, the cancer rate on Vieques actually is considerably lower than that of many major U.S. cities.

But putting all these arguments aside, serious observers should compare the livefire range at Vieques to another training range which has been located in my state of Oklahoma for the last 80 years. At the Army's Ft. Sill in the city of Lawton located within two miles of a population of about 100,000 - live-fire heavy-- artillery training averages 320 days a year with all of its attendant noise and explosions. This compares to about 160 days a year at Vieques , where the range is 10 miles away from a population of about 9,000. But in Lawton, there is no evidence of the kind of increased rates of heart problems, infant mortality and cancer alleged at Vieques .

One of the larger myths driving this debate is the belief held by many in Washington that the residents of Vieques virtually are unanimous in their opposition to continued Navy training. But I am convinced this is not true. While anti-Navy activists through their orchestrations of protests and publicity-- have done an effective public-relations job to instill this belief, the Navy has much more support on the island than many realize. In recent protests, very few of those involved actually live on Vieques . Indeed, an active, but less visible, pro-Navy group already has secured 2,500 signatures of registered voters in Vieques on petitions supporting the Navy and calling for the secession of Vieques from Puerto Rico. This is close to half the registered voters on the island.

This is especially significant because current law - which I helped to write - calls for the Navy's fate on the island to be determined in a referendum among Vieques residents scheduled for this November. While the new secretary of the Navy recently said he would urge Congress to change this law and cancel the referendum, it is simply not going to happen if this senator has anything to say about it. I believe that the referendum should go forward and that the Navy and its supporters should fight actively to refute the misrepresentations, lies and all-too-frequent antimilitary and anti-American rhetoric coming from the activists who want the Navy out for political reasons.

It is no accident that the anti-Navy cause is backed so strongly by Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his fellow travelers (see "Fidel Fuels Fires of Vieques Quarrel," July 23). Their real agenda has little to do with the well-being of the residents of Vieques .

In Washington, some now are trying to argue that the referendum sets a terrible precedent that will encourage a domino effect at other U.S. military-training sites in Okinawa (Japan), Korea and elsewhere. If this is true, the answer is not unilaterally to abandon this vital national-security asset in the face of irresponsible protests, easily refutable arguments and dubious political calculations. What kind of a precedent does that set?

The referendum was an unavoidable concession to political circumstances created by the last administration. Yet it held out the best hope of restoring needed livefire training at this irreplaceable site. It also was endorsed by the Republican presidential candidate who won the election on a platform to restore needed attention to military readiness and national security.

The proper course now is to stand by our men and women in uniform and to allow the residents of Vieques - our fellow Americans - to exercise a measure of self-determination. We must appeal to them to repudiate the outsiders carrying political snake oil and to appreciate the vital role their community and their island has played - and can continue to play - in the enduring cause of freedom.

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