Sailors, Marines Get Go-Ahead for Vieques Training
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 27, 2001 A contingent of U.S. sailors and Marines slated for Mideast duty will first conduct a week's-worth of training at the range facility on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico.
Demonstrators are expected to protest the exercise; earlier this week a U.S. federal judge threw out a Puerto Rican government lawsuit that sought to ban training at Vieques because of health and noise concerns.
Pentagon spokesperson Navy Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said April 26 that "very robust" security arrangements have been made to support the Vieques exercise, including land- and water-based federal and Commonwealth of Puerto Rico law enforcement officers.
"As notified to the government of Puerto Rico, the Navy is proceeding with a short training exercise at the naval training range at Vieques by its forces en route to the Arabian Gulf," the DoD announced in an April 26 news release.
The Navy will use inert bombs and shells during the training. The exercise involves sailors and Marines assigned to the USS Enterprise carrier battle group.
The Navy continues to examine alternative training sites for Atlantic-area sailors and Marines. Officials are working to reduce the need for the facility at Vieques.
In the meantime, "Vieques is a superb training range, the best in the entire Atlantic" for sailors and Marines to conduct realistic training, Quigley said.
The U.S. Atlantic fleet has trained at Vieques since 1941. The range became a sensitive issue between Puerto Rico and DoD when an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard and injured four others April 19, 1999.
On June 9 of that year, then-President Clinton directed then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen to form a special panel "to review the need for operations at Vieques and to explore alternative sites or methods that would meet the Department's needs."
DoD officials continue to talk with Puerto Rican officials about Vieques. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met with Puerto Rico Governor Sila Calderon Feb. 27 to discuss Navy training issues at Vieques. Quigley noted that acting Navy Secretary Robert B. Pirie Jr. has been active in recent Vieques discussions.
"As before, we look forward to the continued cooperation of the people and government of Puerto Rico in providing adequate security for the Navy to conduct the training that is so critical for the safety and proficiency of our armed forces," according to the DoD release. "For the time being, the effectiveness of our deployed naval forces and the safety of our men and women in uniform depend on the continued limited use of the Vieques naval training range."
A 1999 agreement between the federal government and Puerto Rico recommended a gradual reduction of training at Vieques over five years. Part of that agreement is a vote to determine whether or not to permit continued training at the facility. The vote must be held by Nov. 6, 2001.