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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Facts Just Making The Picture Fuzzier

By Deborah Ramirez

August 11, 2001
Copyright © 2001 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

Something is wrong with this picture.

The Pentagon is looking for ways to cut costs and close military bases throughout the United States and can expect a battle in Congress, where lawmakers view these bases as the economic lifelines of their communities.

Close to 70 percent of Vieques voters recently approved, in a non-binding referendum, asking the Navy to close its 60-year-old bombing range immediately.

The range has hurt, rather than helped, the local economy and many residents are afraid it may be affecting their health as well. Yet a congressional panel has voted to keep the range open beyond its targeted 2003 closing date, perhaps indefinitely.

The House Armed Services Committee approved a measure that bars the Navy from closing its Vieques training site until it finds a replacement that is just as good or better. This could be never. The full House has yet to vote on the measure.

Bases are slated to be closed where the community wants to keep them open and a Navy firing range could be kept open where the community is begging for it to close.

If that doesn't make much sense, this makes even less: Vieques is becoming obsolete as a training site for the Atlantic Fleet.

This comes from Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who was quoted last week saying that the amphibious assault training that Vieques provides won't be needed in another five to 10 years. Retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll Jr. says such training is already obsolete because modern weapons can easily wipe out troops landing on the beach and even the warships carrying them.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is looking to create a leaner, more modern military. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is reportedly faced with the choice of drastic cuts in conventional forces or more money for missile defense and new technology.

So if Vieques isn't really essential for military readiness, and if local residents want the Navy out, and if the Pentagon is looking for ways to cut expenses, then what's the problem?

To me, it's military machismo emanating more from Congress than from the armed forces.

Granted, President Bush supports closing the Vieques range in 2003, although this is far from being a done deal, as demonstrated by the House committee's recent action. And Puerto Ricans on the island are divided over how and when the Navy should give up Vieques, although most agree that it should happen.

American troops going into harm's way should get all the training they need. And no one should forget that since World War I, Puerto Ricans have been among those troops.

Whether Puerto Rico in the future decides to become a state, remain a commonwealth or seek its independence, military training on the scale of Vieques shouldn't be forced on people who are powerless to do anything about it. Islanders don't vote for members of Congress or the president.

One argument against closing the Vieques bombing range is that Puerto Rico receives millions of dollars a year in federal funds without paying federal income taxes. This doesn't take into account the millions of dollars that Puerto Rico generates for the U.S. economy: It is among the 10 largest consumer markets for U.S. goods and services in the world, and generates about 250,000 jobs on the U.S. mainland.

Either way, it's a bad deal to trade bombs and artillery for food stamps.

But this was the tone of the debate on the House Armed Services Committee last week, with some members suggesting their constitutents were more willing to make sacrifices for the national defense than ungrateful Vieques residents.

If those constituents had to live as people do in Vieques, with a high jobless rate and a 26 percent higher chance of getting cancer than in Puerto Rico or the United States, I imagine they would vote any representative who told them they were unpatriotic whiners out of office.

The military wants to close domestic bases to save money and some members of Congress want to keep a bombing range open that is of questionable military usefulness.

This picture keeps getting fuzzier all the time.

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