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The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA

National Defense: Why We Must Continue To Train On Vieques


June 24, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. All Rights Reserved.

The sun is beautiful, warm and reaches daily into every quiet corner of the beach. Cultivated mango groves begin about 200 yards from the beach area - Red Beach, White Beach and Blue Beach in Vieques , Puerto Rico .

This morning at 0500 we are going ashore in dozens of Mike 8 boats and Amtraks. As shore party detachment Marines, my platoon is responsible for making safe the Red Beach area to 200 yards inland, hopefully ensuring that the main body of Marines following ashore will encounter few obstacles as they move over the beach to their objectives.

As part of a coordinated sea, land and air attack, U.S. Navy and Marine Corps fighter jets are hitting the enemy's rear area on the isolated part of Vieques . This "hostile area" is not only where the enemy's artillery batteries are firing from, but also where the enemy's supply depot is located.

Several trucks and tanks are poised here in anticipation for their rapid deployment to counterattack our efforts. And a strong counterattack could mean casualties on my beach, to my Marines and sailors.

After three years of no-letup combat training, the mission had been completed except for mop-up operations. Our infantry battalion, with support elements, had retaken Camp Garcia from the enemy and routed them from the area. It was October 1978.

As a young Marine officer, I participated in Vieques training during three different naval deployments to the Caribbean basin area between 1977 and 1980. And so have thousands of other Marines and sailors. Just in the past 20 years, those Vieques experiences have been used in places like the island of Grenada, the Philippines, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, several U.S. embassy evacuations around the world and, of course, Desert Storm and the Gulf region where, along with the Balkans, the U.S. military still patrols.

Vieques is as important today to our country's defense as it has ever been. The naval surface and undersea training, including live fire training from planes, ship's guns and land-based artillery, is critical to preparing our troops for combat.

During my time in the Marine Corps, I was deployed to foreign lands several times for training, combat and peacekeeping duties. The quality of training I received both prepared and allowed me, along with a strong faith in God and a little luck, to always return home - in one piece. And more importantly, that training gave me the ability to accomplish the assigned mission and return home the people that I was blessed to lead.

No place in this hemisphere under U.S. government control offers the opportunity for coordinated sea-air-land combat training like Vieques . If we lose Vieques training, we will lose more Americans the next time they go into a hostile environment.

In 1978 the Vieques protests that the media covered were terribly one-sided in reporting. Though I hope it's different today, I doubt it. As reported the, especially by ABC News and "20/20," the waters off Vieques were "filled" with fishing boats full of protesting Vieques citizens, . The "hundreds" of Vieques protesters on land wanted the "U.S. out."

The protesters were later found to be mostly people from other islands, the leaders were members of the Communist Party or the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, and there were only five small boats and about 40 protesters total on land and sea. I personally counted them.

As a side note: The mango groves are carefully bypassed, the live firing range is very isolated and the beaches are left the same way as they have always been left - clean.

Real training like that offered at Vieques cannot totally be replaced by simulation training. The Navy has for years been trying to find somewhere else to duplicate Vieques training, but without success.

And if Vieques goes, the U.S. naval base at Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico , will more than likely not be far behind in the exodus of U.S. strength from the Caribbean basin.

The day will probably come when the Navy no longer is allowed to train on Vieques but, make no mistake, the loss of that training will in one way or another cost the lives of more than the occasional stray wild goat that wonders into the Vieques live-fire range.

It's regretful that last year, for the first time in decades of military training at Vieques , a civilian security guard responsible for keeping people out of the impact range area was killed by a stray bomb. However, the loss of the unique Vieques training package will probably someday needlessly cost the lives of many U.S. servicemembers - your family members - who in the future are put "in harm's way." We should continue training on Vieques.

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