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The Florida Times-Union

Use Vieques

November 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001
The Florida Times-Union. All Rights Reserved.

With lives and the outcome of a war involved, it's vital that U.S. troops receive the best training possible. That's why top Navy and Marine Corps officers are asking the Navy secretary to allow for limited use of live bombs and rounds once again during training at the Puerto Rico island of Vieques .

Military leaders want the next carrier battle group slated for the war on terrorism in Afghanistan -- which is expected to be led by the Jacksonville-based USS John F. Kennedy -- to practice using real ammo before the group is deployed overseas. A newspaper reports that the Kennedy's pilots and Marines could see combat in Afghanistan or even Iraq.

Effective training is a key reason for the steady success of the United States and anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan, one of the world's most difficult places to fight an entrenched enemy. Good training enhances effectiveness and saves lives.

The Navy switched from live to dummy explosives on Vieques two years ago after an errant bomb killed a local security guard at an observation post on the range. President Bush has vowed to end military exercises on the island by May 2003.

Opponents claim the bombing harms the environment and jeopardizes the health of Vieques ' 9,100 residents.

Last week, a federal appeals court upheld a defeat for environmental groups who wanted to use the Endangered Species Act to stop the bombing. Earlier this month, the U.S. Agency for Toxic Sub- stances and Disease Registry said it hasn't found any evidence that the training put toxic substances into the soil or water.

The Navy has maintained that no evidence exists showing ill health effects to residents from the bombing. The Navy owns about two- thirds of the island and uses a bombing range covering 900 acres on the island's southern tip and contends the bombing causes minimal environmental damage. The range is about 10 miles from residential areas. Some U.S. cities are closer to live-fire training sites.

The island has become a political football. But made-for-TV protests frequently held there rarely exceed 200 people and only about 20 are actual residents of the island, a Heritage Foundation military expert says.

The numbers speak volumes about the benefits of Vieques vs. the risks as a training ground.

For more than 60 years, the Navy has used Vieques in preparing for war. Lessons learned and skills honed on the island have saved countless lives, yet during that six decades one civilian has died from training-related accidents, the Navy said.

Eventually, the United States will stop training at Vieques , when a suitable replacement is found. But, for now, the island is needed to prepare U.S. troops for war against the aggressors who attacked this nation.

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