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The Americas

A Call To Patriotism: Keep Vieques Open

By George W. Grayson*

October 12, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All Rights Reserved.

The Navy's most important bombing range, Vieques Island in Puerto Rico, became the subject of intense political debate in 1999, when a security guard was accidentally killed there. It was the first civilian fatality at the installation in its six decades of operation, but to quell a storm of protest, Congress agreed to a referendum on whether the facility should remain open. If anti-Navy politicians win, the Navy would have no choice but to depart; if they lose, the Navy can continue using the facility, but would pay the Puerto Rican government $50 million. In the face of mounting protests, President Bush then agreed to withdraw the Navy anyway in May 2003.

With America at war, the future of Vieques must be reconsidered. Congress should act immediately to spike the Nov. 6 referendum and quash plans to boot the Navy in 2003. Even advocates of shuttering Vieques -- many of them eager to curry favor with Puerto Rican voters in the Big Apple -- can justify a reassessment of their earlier position.

Vieques is the only facility on the East Coast where the U.S. armed forces can conduct fully integrated land, sea and air exercises, using live ammo. This means that the Navy and Marines can practice coordinated amphibious assaults, air strikes, and gunfire support from naval surface ships like destroyers and cruisers, and combined arms and special forces operations. Such activities may well prove crucial in this new era of war against Osama bin Laden and his radical disciples around the world.

Training with simulators and dummy rounds is fine to a point. To rely on it completely, however, does a disservice to our forces, which are confronting their greatest challenge since World War II. Assembling, fusing, handling, loading and firing live weapons is necessary both to familiarize personnel with procedures and to hone their skills.

A provision in the Department of Defense's 2002 authorization bill would call off next month's vote. President Bush endorses the cancellation. But many typically bold, assertive politicians are displaying caution on this sensitive issue that bristles with ethnic politics. Some radicals are even comparing the bombing drills on the Puerto Rican island to the terror that afflicted lower Manhattan last month.

Protesters on the island, who are eager to renew civil disobedience, recently issued a statement in which they "energetically reject terrorism, war, and any type of violence as a means to resolve conflicts in our world." We "do not want to be used for preparing wars in the 21st century," they added. Never mind that scores of Puerto Ricans perished on Sept. 11.

New York Assemblyman José Rivera, who opposes the Navy in Vieques, has said, "I find it very strange that we are still thinking that the only place these military tasks can be conducted is in Vieques. It's not true. There are islands off the coast of Florida where [the Navy] could do it."

He is wrong. The two flag officers responsible for military training -- then-Lt. Gen. Peter Pace, commander, Fleet Marine Forces Atlantic, and then-Vice Adm. William Fallon, commander, Second Fleet -- testified before Congress after screening 18 potential sites. They found no East Coast alternative to Vieques for the sort of integrated, advanced instruction crucial for combat readiness. Their presentation recognized the inherent blow to combat readiness that would spring from trying out individual parts at the expense of rehearsing the full orchestra: It has limited value, but won't be enough.

The congressional panel that independently evaluated the issue in 1999 agrees with these officers. While the committee strongly suggested that technologies could reduce training on Vieques, the legislators also recognized that "alternate training methods for the combined arms operations most essential for readiness are not currently feasible or available."

Apparently oblivious to the economic and security benefits that Uncle Sam confers on her people, Puerto Rico's governor, Sila María Calderón, sees "a real threat" that some members of Congress will use the current crisis to allow the U.S. military to stay in Vieques indefinitely. She might have consulted the Puerto Rican community in Lancaster, Pa., which called off its annual Puerto Rican Parade out of respect for the Sept. 11 victims. "There is no reason for us to have a celebration . . . when our support needs to be for our nation and the country where we live," said parade committee president Madeline Hernandez.

More than 22,000 Puerto Ricans now serve on active duty. And of identifiable ethnic groups, only Mexican-Americans and Filipino-Americans have higher enlistment rates. During the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, Puerto Ricans earned four Congressional Medals of Honor -- a disproportionately large figure compared with their number of combatants.

To his credit, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who had pilloried the Navy's operations on Vieques, stated that "You can't pull the rug out from under the war effort at this moment." Rep. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) says, "I think we have to recognize the reality of the moment." Still, other members of the Hispanic Caucus continue to prefer cant to common sense. For example, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D., Calif.) argued for holding the vote to give a voice to Puerto Ricans, who lack full representation in Congress. Should residents of non-Puerto Rican communities that lie cheek-by-jowl with military facilities also hold referendums? Should the not-in-my-backyard perspective be allowed to trump national security?

In late September, the Navy began three weeks of exercises only to find protesters cutting a 60-foot gash in the base's fence and firing flares at a Sea King helicopter from small boats that had invaded the restricted waters off Vieques.

Perhaps these firebrands should talk to Marine First Lt. Troy Hadall, air support element officer-in-charge. He summed up his views as his unit set off for the Middle East aboard an aircraft carrier. Thanks to training on Vieques amid naval gunfire and air support, "we were truly able to master our craft," he said. "My Marines gained immeasurable experience and now exude the quiet confidence that I expect." Political leaders should heed this fighting leatherneck's message and place political courage ahead of political correctness.

Mr. Grayson, who teaches government at the College of William & Mary, has just completed "Mexico: The Changing of the Guard," to be published by the Foreign Policy Association.


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