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Associated Press Newswires

Marines To Storm Panhandle Beaches In December

November 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved. 

FORT WALTON BEACH, Fla. (AP) - The Marine Corps plans to storm beaches in the Florida Panhandle during a 10-day training exercise in mid-December, its first since leaving its Puerto Rico training site.

Marine officials warned motorists to expect major traffic backups on busy U.S. Highway 98 and to a lesser degree on State Road 20 on two of those days.

Nearby Eglin Air Force Base, which sprawls across 724 square miles in three counties, will be the focal point of the exercise.

The Navy and Marines last year stopped training on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, which they had used for more than 50 years, after a series of protests. The move prompted by an April 1999 bombing accident that killed a civilian security guard and subsequent protests.

"With this exercise, Eglin becomes a significant contributor to the combat readiness of your Marine Corps," Lt. Col. Bryan Salas said at a Rotary Club luncheon here Wednesday.

The Marines will do a cost-benefit analysis after the exercise to determine if they will continue training at Eglin, Salas said. If so, the tentative plan is for two exercises annually.

Navy warplanes and aircraft carriers previously have conducted live-fire exercises on Eglin's bombing ranges, normally used for weapons testing, and plan to continue. There has been little, if any, local opposition.

"This community has long supported the military," Rotary Club president Tim Shaw told Salas. "We're glad you're here."

The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit will begin the exercise in a relatively low-key way on Dec. 8 when CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters land reconnaissance teams deep inside Eglin's military reservation, Salas said.

The sky also will be filled with AV-8B Harrier jump jets and AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter gunships on live-fire missions. The aircraft will be launched from the USS Wasp, a Navy amphibious assault ship, in the Gulf of Mexico.

A full-scale invasion by 2,200 troops will begin Dec. 12. Marines will come ashore at several sites from Wynnhaven Beach on the west to Choctaw Beach on the east.

Marine officials are warning motorists to plan on spending an extra hour on the road that day as troops, tanks, Humvees and other vehicles cross U.S. 98 at Wynnhaven Beach, about 10 miles west of Fort Walton Beach.

The highway will be blocked both ways for up to 30 minutes during three crossing between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. CST on Dec. 12 and again on Dec. 17 when the Marines depart.

Navy vessels will use the East Pass at Destin for access to Choctawhatchee Bay. Law enforcement officials also expect backups on U.S. 98 at the Destin Bridge and on the Mid-Bay Bridge that links U.S. 98 and S.R. 20 as motorists slow down to take a look.

Ten-minute closures also are expected as troops and vehicles cross S.R. 20 along the bay's north shore near Choctaw Beach, Salas said.

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