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Is the U.S. Military Presence in Puerto Rico Beneficial to the Island?

April 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved. 

Controversy over the U.S. Navy’s use of its training facility on Vieques often clouds the fact that the U.S. military has had a long and important role in the defense and economy of Puerto Rico since the island was ceded to the United States. From the moment that the first U.S. Army trooper put his boot into the sand of Guánica’s beach in 1898, U.S. uniformed services have become a permanent part of the island’s landscape. A 1998 Department of Defense count listed 25 installations spotted throughout the island, taking up approximately 13% of Puerto Rico’s land mass.

Presently, the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard maintain facilities in Puerto Rico, the largest being the U.S. Naval base at Roosevelt Roads. Fort Buchanan, a U.S. Army compound, is the oldest, while the Coast Guard operates two stations, one near San Juan and the other based within a former U.S. Air Force Base (Ramey AFB) some 60 miles west of San Juan near Aguadilla, now named Rafael Hernandez Airport. An Air Force squadron responsible for regional military air control also operates out of this facility. Sabana Seca Naval Station just west of San Juan is a security installation and among the others, there are two Puerto Rico National Guard facilities on the island’s south side, Camp Santiago and Fort Allen.

According to Navy sources, Roosevelt Roads today contributes an estimated $250 million annually to Puerto Rico’s economy. It supports 17,000 people, 3,000 of whom are military on active duty and 3,850 who are civilian employees. Among the base’s important functions are logistical support for the training exercises on Vieques. The National Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 2002 stipulates that, if the Navy pulls out of Vieques, all facilities specifically related to supporting Vieques training must be removed. Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.) introduced a bill in 1999 to close Roosevelt Roads entirely if Vieques could not be used for training the fleet.

The other large U.S. military post, Fort Buchanan, opened in 1923 and, since 1999, is home for operational elements of the U.S. Army South (SouthCom) with a staff of 1,250 military and civilian personnel. It is also headquarters for some 15,000 reserve soldiers. It is popularly dubbed the "only fully bilingual/bicultural base in the US military." The SouthCom billet seems tenuous, since it is coveted by several southern states, notably Georgia and Texas, whose strong and well-positioned congressional delegations have met informally to strategize how to woo the command away from Puerto Rico. They will argue that their backyard will be friendlier territory for the Army than is Ft. Buchanan, quietly using the argument that the vociferous protests over Vieques is a sign of growing anti-Americanism among Puerto Ricans. An Army announcement is expected soon.

But the large community of Puerto Rican veterans and active duty personnel would dispute the lack of American patriotism on the island. They would point to the disproportionately high numbers from the Puerto Rico who have come to the defense of the flag in past wars, and to the heralded record of valor displayed by Puerto Rican regiments in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Presently there are over 19,000 members of the armed forces claiming Puerto Rican ethnicity, a number representing some 1.6% of the total active duty force (DOD FY-1998). Today, Puerto Rico has nine JROTC programs in its universities, with over 1000 candidates enrolled. Whatever their private opinions about Vieques, it is sure that those Puerto Rican cadets are looking forward at graduation to receiving the gold bars of a U.S. Army/Air Force/Marine second lieutenant or Navy ensign pinned onto their epaulets.

This Week's Question:
Is the U.S. Military Presence in Puerto Rico Beneficial to the Island?



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