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The Nation Needs Vieques
by Jay L. Johnson and James L. Jones
Adm. Jay L. Johnson is chief of naval operations and Gen. James
L. Jones is commandant of the Marine Corps.
November 15, 1999
Copyright © 1999 MIAMI HERALD. All Rights Reserved.
On April 19 a Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornet was involved in a
tragic accident at the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility
on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico.
Flying in cloudy weather, the pilot mistook an observation
building located within the range for a ground target. He dropped
two 500-pound bombs on what he thought was the correct target,
and the explosion resulted in the death of David Sanes-Rodriguez,
a civilian security guard at the facility. We are deeply sorry
for the death of Mr. Sanes-Rodriguez.
This tragic accident has prompted a demand for the closure
of the Vieques facility. As the dialogue over Vieques continues,
it is important to understand the vital contribution that Vieques
Island makes to our national security. Vieques is the only place
on the East Coast where aircraft, naval surface ships and ground
forces can employ combined arms training with live ammunition
under realistic conditions.
Vieques is unique because of its hydrography, geography and
surrounding airspace. It lies outside heavily used commercial
air corridors and sea routes, providing sea and air space for
live-fire training. It is a superior site for rehearsing amphibious
operations in a live-fire environment.
A world-class training facility of this type comes at a significant
price. Americans have invested more than $3 billion on land, facilities
and equipment to support our training in the Puerto Rican Operating
Area, of which the Vieques range and the nearby Roosevelt Roads
Naval Station are the centerpiece.
The fundamental value of the Vieques facility is proven every
day by our forward deployed naval forces. The Aircraft Carrier
Battle Groups and the Amphibious Ready Group that trained at Vieques
within the last year ended up flying combat operations over Iraq
and Kosovo within days of their arrival overseas. They delivered
many of their attacks from high altitude, and their ability to
do so successfully was directly related to their training at Vieques.
The future of Vieques Island as a training facility must transcend
the emotion of the April 19 tragedy. The accident should not override
the fact that the range on Vieques has an enviable safety record
over the course of its more than half century of use. This was
the first loss of life from the release of ordnance, and no bomb
or round has ever fallen on Vieques outside the confines of the
range. Ordnance impact areas are nearly 10 miles to the east of
the population center, separated by a range of hills. On the East
Coast, only Vieques provides a site to practice the combined land,
sea and air maneuver and live-fire skills that are fundamental
to our ability to fight and win our nation's battles and wars.
Within the limits of current technology, many skills and techniques
of weapons and aircraft training are still learned and perfected
with the use of live ordnance under realistic conditions. Such
experiences build the skills and confidence that our forces need
before undertaking their operational deployments. The success
of our military depends on regular access to our national training
facilities at Vieques Island and other sites that provide these
Decreasing, restricting or eliminating access to such facilities
as a result of a once-in-a-generation accident will result in
reduced combat skills proficiency of our service members and could
cause loss of American lives in future conflicts.
Before rendering any judgment that places men and women of
our armed forces at increased risk, we must carefully weigh the
short-term benefits of such decisions against the likely long-term