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Stakes High for Navy, Puerto Rico in Battle over Bombing Range

by Jack Dorsey

August 9, 1999
Copyright © 1999 THE VIRGINIA-PILOT AND THE LEDGER-STAR. All Rights Reserved.

As the pressure mounts for the Navy to surrender its premier bombing range on the nearby Island of Vieques, the commanding officer of this 8,600-acre base on Puerto Rico's east coast warns that such a pullout could spell the end of the Navy's presence here altogether.

And that, Capt. James Stark said, is a $275 million annual slice of Puerto Rico's $28 billion economy.

Stark, a former A-6 Intruder aviator based at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, doesn't mince words. The crisis, he said, consumes nearly all of his time, especially since April 19, when a Marine Corps F/A-18 dropped two 500-pound bombs on an observation post on the Vieques range, killing a Navy-employed security guard and injuring four other Puerto Rican civilians.

The accident occurred more than eight miles from the nearest town. A buffer zone ranging from eight to 10 miles exists on the island to separate the population from the live-fire impact zone.

The observation post is inside the Navy range, but outside the target zone.

Navy investigators have blamed both the pilot and a ground controlman for causing the accident.

The Navy has been demonized as a result of the accident, Stark said. Outraged Puerto Ricans have stepped up demands that the Navy permanently stop bombing. Their demands have festered for years and were fueled by the accidental death.

Some are also calling for the Navy to turn over ownership of its bombing site to Puerto Rican islanders.

The political fallout has been so fierce that the Catholic archbishop there has even refused to say Mass on base, a protest that Stark claims is earning the Navy its demon reputation.

The dispute has caused the Navy to suspend all military operations on Vieques. Political observers say the Vieques dispute will most likely become a campaign issue for Puerto Ricans living stateside. For the Navy, the loss of its bombing range is strategic; it threatens the readiness of the Atlantic Fleet.

Since the Navy suspended bombing runs on Vieques last month, 40 protesters have illegally occupied a portion of the bombing range, camping out on the live-fire impact zone amid unexploded ordnance that Stark fears will kill or injure them. On weekends, more than 100 additional campers join the protest. They include children.

Stark says he hasn't been allowed to remove them.

Rear Adm. Terrance T. Etnyre, commander of South Atlantic Forces for the Atlantic Fleet and the senior officer at Roosevelt Roads, agrees that the future of the base will be in jeopardy if the Navy cannot continue to use Vieques for its air, land and sea training missions.

"There will be no real reason for us to keep it open," Etnyre said recently while on a trip to Colombia for the annual UNITAS exercise.

"You may well end up seeing a significant reduction in our footprint here in Roosevelt Roads because so much of what we have there is in support of that range," he said.

Stark estimated that 85 percent of Roosevelt Roads' activities are in support of the Vieques ranges. In the past 15 years, more than 1,300 ships and 4,200 aircraft have used the ranges. The Navy purchased about three-fourths of the 50-square-mile island - most of it a sugar plantation - in 1943.

So far, the ban has most seriously affected the carrier John F. Kennedy battle group, which was unable to complete its training and will sail overseas next month with a less than desirable readiness status.

It was an F/A-18 from the Kennedy that caused the fatal accident.

Also affected were the five ships making up this year's UNITAS deployers. They were unable to use the range, as they have for the past 40 years, Etnyre said.

Furthermore, ships making up the carrier Eisenhower battle group were to have begun training on the range in September, in preparation for overseas deployment in the spring.

For these ships, there are no other options. The Navy doesn't own anything comparable to Vieques .

"Can we hold on another year? A year without live fire? I don't know," Etnyre said.

The Vieques issue has become a political football so hot that the Navy has had to sit on the sidelines, waiting for a presidential commission's report next month that will decide the Navy's future here.

The report and its recommendations will be debated at the Pentagon, White House and in Congress before the issue is settled, Navy officials and others agree.

"Anybody who thinks this crisis started because of two errant bombs does not understand the nature of this crisis," Stark said in an interview last week at his office.

Back in January, the president of the Puerto Rican Senate, Charlie Rodriguez, pushed through a resolution calling for the Navy to end its use of live ordnance on Vieques .

Stark met with Rodriguez and other political leaders and came away convinced that the issue was a political nightmare the Navy had better avoid if it could. Politicians who differ over whether the island should become a state, seek independence or retain its commonwealth status all have been using the Vieques incident against the Navy.

But all they really wanted from the Navy, said Stark, was for it to put more money into Vieques and its community development.

The Navy has long struggled for good relations with Vieques residents. While Navy leaders believe that only a few hundred of the island's estimated 9,300 people really resent the service's presence, they make far more noise than those who would like the Navy to remain.

In mid-July, protesters scrawled graffiti on a Navy warship and fought with riot police in San Juan's historic port area over the naval training.

Sailors used a fire hose to try to stop a demonstrator who painted a protest slogan across the stern of the guided missile cruiser Yorktown, moored in San Juan Harbor.

Last year, following Hurricane Georges, which inflicted heavy damage on Puerto Rico - $35 million alone at Roosevelt Roads - the Navy dispatched Marines to Vieques to help distribute water and begin a cleanup.

Instead of being welcomed, said Stark, they were surrounded by 50 irate fishermen and were told by local police to get off the island. The Marines were later charged with trespassing.

In the summer of 1996, when a group of Dutch ships visited the island and anchored off Sun Bay, fishermen from Vieques came out and threw paint on the ships.

"The Dutch are used to Greenpeace, so they brought out their fire hoses," Stark said. The response from the fishermen was to use sling shots loaded with marbles and spark plugs. A Dutch sailor lost an eye in the altercation.

Last year, when Navy Seabees were working on Vieques, someone threw a coconut through the windshield of their vehicle, striking the driver in the head and causing permanent partial paralysis, Stark said. The vehicle crashed into another car before the driver passed out. Another Seabee took over and drove to safety.

"I sent a helo over at 4 a.m. to medevac him out," Stark said. "A week later, he goes back to file charges and he is arrested for hit and run. That is Vieques."

Just how the issue will end, no one can say. The congressional commission report, to be issued next month, may recommend a compromise that would allow the Navy to continue to operate for a few more years while it looks for alternative bombing sites. Meanwhile, the Navy will probably give up ownership on the west end of the island, allowing residents full use of that property. Federal funds also will be made available to the island for further economic development.

Stark believes the Navy needs to do a better job of making its point.

"We have not gone on the offensive," he said, "to put it on the line and say, `Hey, listen. This base does not exist necessarily for Puerto Rico's benefit. It exists for the nation's benefit. National defense exists for all American citizens, not just the great commonwealth of Puerto Rico.'

"Puerto Rico's contribution to national defense is providing a place like Vieques, just like the great state of North Carolina provides Dare County (bombing range), just like they provide Fort Bragg.

"The Navy didn't build Roosevelt Roads to stimulate the economy of Puerto Rico. We exist right now to train battle groups.

"If we can't use Vieques, is there anybody who thinks we are going to keep Roosevelt Roads open?

"I can't tell you if we lose Vieques tomorrow we are going to shut down Roosevelt Roads. I can't make that decision.

"But when you sail a battle group down here, they all come down together and the centerpiece is the carrier, which has an air wing, which needs to drop bombs, and Vieques is it."

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