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THE VIRGINIA-PILOT AND THE LEDGER-STAR (Norfolk, VA)
Stakes High for Navy, Puerto Rico in Battle over Bombing
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
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
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
"There will be no real reason for us to keep it open,"
Etnyre said recently while on a trip to Colombia for the annual
"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
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
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
Stark believes the Navy needs to do a better job of making
"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
"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."