Proceedings Vieques

Edwin Hernandez-Delgado coral_giac at
Tue Dec 7 17:58:44 EST 1999

Dear all.

I found some messages that people had trouble accessing the web site 
regarding the Navy opinion about Vieques and Puerto Ricans.  For the benefit 
of those of you who were not able to access the site, here is the 
information that I just cut and pasted.



Professional Notes

     The Navy is the Best Thing That Has Happened to Vieques . . .

     By Captain John E. O'Neil, Jr., U.S. Navy (Retired)


     "Bridge, combat--we have an urgent fire mission for illumination and 
high explosive."

     "Bridge aye, are navigation and gun plot set?"

     "Yes, sir."

     "Very well, batteries released!"

     Both gun mounts silently traversed 90 degrees out on the smooth riding 
destroyer's starboard
     beam and gently quiver with the receipt of the train and elevation gun 
orders from the fire control
     computer. Then, with large bang and bright flash, followed by the sound 
of the smoking, empty
     powder can clanging on the steel deck under the forward mount, the 
first star shell left the ship.
     The sound of the powder can momentarily distracted the skipper as he 
watched the first round his
     ship had ever fired in combat arch high over the dark, calm sea to pop 
1,500 feet above the target
     ashore some 8,800 yards away. "Good flare," he said to no one in 

     Several more star shells bloomed high in the near distant night. The 
commanding officer (CO),
     Commander Roberto Rodriguez, saw his paraflares blooming brightly over 
the terrorist position
     that had been firing at the recently landed mechanized company from the 
26th Marine
     Expeditionary Unit. Excitement and tension rose on the bridge as the 
Marine spotter's voice called
     for rapid continuous fire. The sharp crack of the aft mount signaled 
the first of six rounds of high
     explosive (HE) speeding to the target. Suddenly--even before the last 
round landed--the spotter's
     voice came screaming over the bridge and combat information center 
radio speakers: "Check fire.
     Check solution. Damn it, your HE rounds are on my position!"

     Commander Rodriguez, born and raised in Puerto Rico and a graduate of 
the U.S. Naval
     Academy, reacted quickly and saw that the error was corrected. 
Fortunately, the errant rounds
     had only slightly damaged two of the Marines lightly armored amphibious 
assault vehicles. Newly
     arrived in the Mediterranean, the destroyer was rated M4 (not 
qualified) in amphibious warfare, a
     primary mission area, because neither the ship nor the MEU had gone 
through any of the live-fire
     training exercises regularly held at the island of Vieques, east of the 
large Navy base at Roosevelt
     Roads, Puerto Rico, before they deployed.

     "That was no way to support my Marines," thought Rodriguez. "Working 
out gunnery and
     spotting problems in a combat situation is not the way to learn. People 
can do more damage to
     friendly forces than the enemy," the skipper told his officer of the 
deck on the starboard bridge
     wing. He was unhappy that some Puerto Ricans--in particular 
     politicians--routinely used the Navy as a convenient scapegoat to cover 
their own lack of fiscal
     support for the 9,000 Viequensens. "Statehood, Commonwealth ,or 
Independence for Puerto
     Rico" were the politically charged slogans the 39-year old commanding 
officer had been hearing
     all his life--but now they were affecting his ability to carry out his 

                                    Lest this sound melodramatic, consider 
the real world: On 22
                                    September 1999, shortly after these 
words were written, Vice
                                    Admiral William Fallon, U.S. Navy. 
Commander Second Fleet,
                                    told Congress that the USS John F. 
Kennedy (CV-67) carrier
                                    battle group had left for the 
Mediterranean only the day before
                                    with a destroyer, the USS John Hancock 
(DD-981), that had
                                    been unable to qualify in naval gunfire 
support during its
                                    pre-deployment work-up. "In some cases, 
we're not trained to
                                    the level we'd like to see." 1 He added 
that the USS Dwight D.
                                    Eisenhower (CVN-69) carrier battle 
group, scheduled to deploy
                                    in February 2000, probably would be 
affected also.

                                    The admiral's remarks came as he and 
Lieutenant General Peter
                                    Pace, U.S. Marine Corps, commander, 
Marine Forces Atlantic,
                                    testified before Senator James Inhofe's 
(R-OK) Senate Armed
     Services Committee's Readiness Panel

     Pace said that the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations 
Capable) was deploying "this
     week" without the benefit of training at Vieques.

     Both flag officers said that they were more than willing to discuss 
ways to improve the quality of life for
     island residents, but emphasized that, considering all East Coast 
locations, " . . . only at Vieques can we
     do the combined arms training that is so essential to the success of 
our forces in combat."

     A little history of the Vieques Weapons Range is in order. The Navy 
originally bought some 22,000-plus
     acres of the sparsely populated island during World War II, paying fair 
market value for the property.
     Since that time, the Navy has conducted hundreds of thousands of 
live-fire training missions with
     shipboard guns, aircraft, and troops ashore using their artillery. 
Vieques is geographically special because
     of its overall length with high hills where observation of the fall of 
shot can be carried out without
     interfering with ongoing training missions in the Live Impact Area 
(LIA), located on the last mile or so of
     the 21-mile-long island, and the 8 to 10 mile by 4-mile-wide Eastern 
Maneuvering Area (EMA)
     immediately adjacent to the LIA.

     Vieques is the only weapons range readily accessible to U.S. East Coast 
units where mission-essential
     combined arms training can be conducted. There are five critical war 
fighting and national security reasons
     to use the island:

          Vieques is outside the path of commercial airline flights, thus 
military pilots can fly the target ranges
          at the necessary tactical delivery heights. Since the air defenses 
of potential adversaries are
          becoming more sophisticated, our aircrews often operate at higher 

          Naval ships can operate in deep water (water depths are over 70 
feet just 3,000 yards from the
          island shoreline) within gunfire range of land-based targets 
without disrupting commercial shipping

          The island beaches and land formations, with no existing civilian 
presence, permit amphibious
          landings and subsequent operations ashore.

          Naval Station Roosevelt Roads, only eight miles away, provides for 
the refueling and supplying of
          the ships and exercise aircraft and houses the Atlantic Fleet 
Weapons Training Facility (AFWTF)
          control center, radar, microwave relay points, and radio 
communications. The base has contributed
          thousands of jobs, and pumped literally billions of dollars into 
the Puerto Rican economy over the
          years supporting Vieques operations.

          Most important, the island range offers 22,000 acres on which 
Marine or Army combat-equipped
          ground troops can maneuver with appropriate support from aircraft 
and Naval ships without
          danger to the adjacent civilian population. In more than 50 years 
of combat training operations,
          there has never been a civilian casualty outside the Vieques 
range, and, until very recently, there
          had never been a casualty on the range.

     The entire range complex at Vieques has been designed specifically to 
give senior commanders an
     opportunity to train, evaluate, and improve combat readiness. The 
supporting arms coordination exercises
     conducted at Vieques just before carrier battle groups and amphibious 
ready groups deploy assess not
     only quantitative elements, but also more qualitative, subjective 
performance criteria. As the units normally
     deploy within a month of the exercise, the training here is vital for 
success in combat.

     Live fire is extremely important to the fleet operators because it 
provides three critical and interlocked
     factors in the training equation:

          Realism, which will save lives in time of crisis

          Valid assessment of the operators' ability to put ordnance on 

          End-to-end training, in which the desired ordnance goes directly 
from the magazines to the actual
          target ashore on the range

     All politics are local--except in Vieques. The most challenging piece 
of the Vieques puzzle is to
     comprehend thoroughly the economic and, more important, the emotional 
political issues that have
     surfaced periodically since Puerto Rico became part of the United 
States at the turn of the last century.
     Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917, and the great population 
migrations to the states began in the
     1940s. Feelings ran very high over considerations of independence, 
commonwealth status, or statehood
     from the late 1940s through the mid 1950s; commonwealth status was 
granted in 1952.

     In the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter pardoned a Puerto Rican 
convicted in 1950 of trying to kill
     President Harry Truman and also pardoned four independentistas who had 
stormed the U.S. House of
     Representatives in 1954, unfurling the Puerto Rican flag, firing 
pistols, and wounding five congressmen.
     Reviewing these facts, you could infer that the pardons were granted 
because of the rising acts of violence
     that began with the first terrorist act attributed to the Fuerzas 
Armadas de Liberacion Nacional
     (FALN) in the bombing of Fraunce's Tavern in New York in 1975, which 
killed four patrons and
     wounded 60.

     In 1979, macheteros ambushed a military bus full of unarmed U.S. 
Sailors on their way to the Naval
     Communications site at Sabana Seca; two Sailors were killed and 10 
others were wounded in this
     murderous act. After the January 1981 bombing of seven Puerto Rican Air 
National Guard jets, a
     machetero was convicted in absentia; others were convicted for stealing 
millions from a Wells Fargo
     armored car. Some in the press would have readers believe these 
criminals were patriots.

     In 1975, the Navy's gave up the live fire ranges on the nearby, 
smaller, neighboring island of Culebra. Use
     of Vieques over the years has shown a series of ebbs and flows in the 
often emotionally charged
     relationship between the local population--mostly a few fishermen, 
independentistas, a couple of late
     1960s/early 1970s war-protester type immigrants from the states--and 
the Navy. Many of these ill
     feelings surface when assorted Puerto Rican independence, statehood, or 
commonwealth groups get the
     attention of the press, and in particular when a commonwealth, 
stateside congressional, or presidential
     election approaches.

     New York City residents of Puerto Rican descent--traditionally 
Democrats--are said to be a key voting
     bloc in the next New York senatorial election, and Puerto Rico is more 
in the national political limelight
     this election because Puerto Rican Governor Rossello is a co-chairman 
of Vice President Al Gore's
     campaign and a top Gore fund-raiser.

     President Bill Clinton's decision to grant conditional clemency to some 
dozen members or accomplices of
     the macheteros terrorists and their forefathers, the FALN, does a 
disservice to the vast majority of
     law-biding Puerto Ricans in that none of these criminals ever did 
anything for Puerto Rico. They bombed
     U.S. political and military sites between 1973 and 1983, stole money, 
killed innocent people, maimed
     policemen, and violated numerous firearms and weapons laws. A major 
fault in the overall handling of the
     Vieques use issue is that the Navy has essentially worked the problem 
by itself with little productive
     assistance from high-level Navy officials, the Congress, or other 
federal agencies or departments. This has
     given some Puerto Ricans the feeling that they remain only a colony 
wrested from Spain and are not
     important for the common defense of our country.

     While Puerto Ricans may not vote for the President, they are very well 
represented by more than 1.4
     million expatriates in New York and New Jersey; the island receives 
more than $12 billion a year in direct
     federal money, has a large Veterans Administration hospital system, and 
residents pay no federal income

     Following the 1979 murders of the innocent Sailors, the Navy and the 
Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in
     1983 signed a memorandum of understanding and made significant efforts 
to orchestrate a cease-fire in
     the turbulent legal battle over Vieques. Since then, the Navy has put 
forward a good-faith effort to live up
     to it, especially in the area of environmental stewardship. A case in 
point: I recently drove from the
     Vieques airport to Observation Post (OP)-1, then to the radar site in 
the Naval Ammunition Supply
     Depot and conservation area at the western end of the island, back 
again to OP-1, and finally to the
     airport. During the nine hours I spent on the island, I carefully noted 
the general care and upkeep of the
     Navy property and the civilian areas--including the beach in the LIA 
where the trespassing
     squatter/protesters are living illegally.

     One has only to drive around to observe the immense amounts of trash 
and junk that exist all over
     Vieques--and Puerto Rico itself. Violent crime is a daily event in most 
parts of the main island; police
     wear blue armored vests in full view of the general public. Few traffic 
laws are observed by the driving
     public or enforced by the police.

     Most telling of the volatility of Puerto Rican political reality in 
1999 are the words of Herberto Acosta,
     writing in The San Juan Star's Viewpoint column of 31 August 1999, 
headlined "P.R. needs to create
     civic consciousness."

     This short but truthful--and painful - article validates the 
observations I made between the time I arrived in
     San Juan in late August 1999 until I left 10 days later. According to 
Acosta, "The worst failure of Puerto
     Rico in the last 50 years has been the inability to create a society 
with a civic conscience. Just six months
     before the millennium, Puerto Rico is unable to reach a civic, economic 
and social status that will fully
     define ourselves as part of the first world countries. In a society 
where our streets, beaches and public
     places are full of trash, no civic conscience can be established. This 
lack of responsibility by the citizens is
     the product of the big pseudo-socialistic and pseudo-capitalistic 
government, established by Munoz
     Marin with the precept that big statism, and by a not-so-subtle 
interchange of favors between citizens and
     governments, in which government patronized its political acolytes by 
giving them jobs and saving
     privileges for them, political power could be maintained."

     He has struck a nerve. I drove from Fajardo, just outside the base at 
Roosevelt Roads, through San Juan
     over to the Camuy Caves and down to Ponce via extremely narrow roads 
with hairpin turns--colloquially
     called a scenic route on the tourist maps--and then back to Fajardo via 
the toll road to San Juan. There is
     indeed seems to be no civic pride to clean up any of the debris. The 
difference between Navy and civilian
     property is night and day. I have been going to Puerto Rico since 1970 
and the trash situation remains as
     bad today as it was then.

     Acosta goes on to highlight many other needs of the population, which 
he feels have been totally ignored
     by the island's governing elite. Many importers find their goods 
routinely tied up on the docks in the major
     ports by a series of confusing customs rules that seem to be lifted 
after a certain amount of time passes or
     a favor is granted to the official whose stamp is needed to release the 
material. Incoming privately owned
     vehicles for service personnel often are held for weeks before being 
released. The same goes for the
     military construction materials that contractors attempt to import for 
federal government contracts.

     The Puerto Rican press is filled with semi-sensational stories about 
the environmental disasters that the
     Navy has visited upon Vieques and Roosevelt Roads. The allegations 
simply are not true. I saw no trash
     along the 11-mile gravel roads that I used to travel up to the OP on 
Vieques. In addition, the return of any
     Navy property on Vieques to the Commonwealth would certainly trigger a 
free-for-all among several
     federal agencies--the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental 
Protection Agency and other
     environmental regulators, and the U.S. Forest Service--who will want 
the present conservation areas to
     remain undeveloped. This will clash with the small group of politicians 
and land developers who hope to
     expand the tourist industry on Vieques.

     The two southern landing beaches in the Eastern Maneuvering Area were 
as pristine on this trip as I had
     seen them 11 years ago during my last coming ashore with my Marines. 
There are significant wildlife
     refuges and conservation zones throughout all the Navy property. The 
silly claims by some--including
     Ruben Berrios Martinez, president of the Puerto Rican Independence 
Party--that the Navy is maltreating
     the sea turtles, brown pelicans, and fish are ridiculous in light of 
the stringent environmental safeguards the
     Navy has put in place on the island. In fact, local poachers routinely 
raid the Navy property to capture
     these endangered creatures. If the Navy is forced to give up the 
training sites, I predict every sea turtle
     and brown pelican will leave their age-old nesting sites; if not, they 
will be poached into extinction. When
     all is said and done, the Navy is the best thing that has happened to 

     In more than 55 years, only one unfortunate incident that resulted in a 
death on the island. A pair of Mark
     82 500-pound iron bombs landed very close to OP-1, spraying heavy 
shrapnel, causing mortal injuries to
     a local hire Viequensen who was an employee of the 50-person civilian 
contract guard force that provides
     security for the Navy facilities on the island. The bombs landed more 
than 1,000 yards from their intended
     target, but were seven miles from the closest town.

     Nevertheless, the Puerto Rican press, politicians, island agitators, 
and stateside opportunists, immediately
     seized upon this accident and filled the print and television media 
with a gross distortion of the entire
     Vieques situation. Activists proclaim that stateside Americans do not 
have to tolerate live bombing ranges
     "right next to them"--but poor Viequensens do! In fact, Eglin Air Force 
Base in the Florida panhandle has
     a variety of live weapon drop areas that are closer to civilians than 
any of those on Vieques. The Vieques
     LIA is almost 10 miles from the closest town on the island, and there 
has never been a piece of live
     ordnance dropped outside the Navy training areas on the Vieques Island 
ranges that has injured a local

     Economic development of the small island and other attempts of 
improving the life of the inhabitants must
     fall squarely on the local Commonwealth politicians with an assist from 
the Department of Defense with
     the Navy as its lead agency. I met several local people on the island 
and they were very complimentary
     about the Navy's rapid assistance following hurricanes, as well as the 
number of jobs the Navy provides.
     Most interesting, they wanted their leaders in San Juan to get on the 
ball to help them move forward
     instead of getting their photos on the social pages of The San Juan 

     The death was truly regrettable, but it was an extremely isolated 
occurrence. If the President decides to
     order the Navy to leave the island range, we will see young American 
blue jackets and
     Marines--including Puerto Ricans--going into combat without proper 
predeployment training.

     1. Sheila Foote, "Military Officials Seek Dialogue to Reopen Vieques 
Range," Defense Daily, 23
     September 1999. Subsequent quotes and references to this hearing also 
came from this article.

     Captain O'Neil, who spent a 30-year career primarily with the 'Gator 
Navy, is a consultant in
     Jacksonville, Florida. He is a frequent Proceedings contributor.

     . . . and it's Not Time to Give it Back

     As a naval officer who first visited the Navy range facility at 
Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, in August
     1969 and continued sailing or flying down there through August 1999, I 
must comment on some of the
     naive, ill-informed comments in Lieutenant Commander Matos's article. 
(See "It's Time to Return
     Vieques," Proceedings, October 1999, page 76.)

     First and foremost, the future of Vieques Island remains the 
responsibility not of the U.S. Navy, but of the
     Commonwealth of Puerto Rico--whose leadership has shown very little 
real interest in the island's future.
     Emotionally biased rhetoric, inaccurate press reports, non-existent 
high-level participation on both sides in
     "conflict" resolution, has poisoned a legitimate look at the on-going 
live-fire issue on Vieques.

     The author's claim that Pacific Fleet training facilities are not able 
to provide the particular level of training
     available at Vieques is inaccurate. West coast units train at Camp 
Pendleton, California, nearby San
     Clemente Island, the offshore Pacific Missile Range, and periodically 
send their aircraft to use the myriad
     of inland training ranges from Arizona to Washington. Ships routinely 
fire live ammunition at targets ashore
     and carefully follow California's environmental rules and guidelines, 
which are much more demanding than
     those of Puerto Rico.Regarding opposition criticism of the Navy's 
environmental stewardship of its Puerto
     Rican property, one has only to stand at the Navy fence line and look 
outside; it is night and day.

     I am hard pressed to see the "harm" that the anti-Navy, 
get-out-of-Vieques antagonists claim the island
     residents live under. The Navy population on Vieques is extremely 
small, and the range is not in constant
     use as indicated by the opposition. The Navy follows a very detailed 
set of rules whenever there is a
     live-fire operation or when the Marines come ashore on the southern 
Vieques beaches to test their landing
     plans and weapons support prior to deployment.

     The claim that supersonic aircraft continually roar over the hapless 
islanders is bogus. In fact, the small
     commuter aircraft--and the planned larger jet aircraft that will soon 
use the larger runway at the local
     airport being constructed on property the Navy signed over to the 
island-- will produce a daily level of
     aircraft noise that will surpass any noise levels that the Navy would 
ever generate over the populated
     areas of the island.

     I predict that if the Navy leaves its present pristine acres, the 
squatters who are a familiar sight all over
     Puerto Rico will claim land, trash it, and kill, eat, or 
capture-then-sell the existing wildlife. The brown
     pelican, the large sea turtles, and fish are indeed now protected, yet 
there are well-documented cases of
     local poachers in these teeming tropical waters and beaches.

     Economic development has been attempted several times on the island 
since the 1983 Memorandum of
     Understanding, but. frankly no one wants to go to the island. The same 
is the case for the former gunnery
     range at the smaller yet island of Culebra to the north. Navy money has 
helped improve the basic
     infrastructure on both islands, but without Commonwealth interest-- 
except vitriolic rhetoric at election
     time--these efforts have failed.

     Local Viequensens told me that Commonwealth politicians have woefully 
ignored their true needs for
     decades. The abysmal roads and public infrastructure serve as mute 
testimony. While there appears to be
     a modern hospital/clinic (viewed from the outside), little has been 
done to staff the facility adequately.
     Trash disposal is almost nonexistent. The islanders rely upon the Navy 
to help restore basic services
     following hurricanes. Last year, a few U.S. expatriate and local 
anti-Navy protesters even blockaded Sea
     Bee efforts to deliver clean water to the hospital that the local mayor 
had agreed to accept!

     There is no reason for tourists to visit the island because there is 
nothing available for them to do except
     to get sunburned, drink rum, and trash the Navy beaches, which 
generally are available for tourist use.
     The large charter fishing industry at Fajardo on the large island of 
Puerto Rico does not want any
     competition from the looked-down-upon residents of the two nearby 
islands. There are no
     Commonwealth programs to assist the job situation, and selling the Navy 
land back to the people is a silly
     notion. There is no local money available to provide an economic 
stimulus, let alone pay a fair market
     value for the Navy acreage.

     I am willing to bet that if President Bill Clinton orders the 
Department of Defense to leave Vieques, very
     few of the islanders will ever see their way of life improve. The 
now-clean Navy beaches of the southern
     side of the island will be littered and trashed in a short amount of 
time, the sea turtles will be slaughtered,
     and the brown pelicans taken from their rookeries in the sanctuaries. 
Little infrastructure money would be
     saved by closing the small Navy facilities on the island. More than 130 
local-hire Viequesens would lose
     their jobs. And when--not if, but when--Cuban President-for-life Fidel 
Castro exits the scene, that very
     large island nation will be ready for major economic development--with 
tourism at the top of the list. The
     Cubans might even be ready to provide the United States with some of 
the old Soviet traing areas--for a
     price. Whatever happens, Puerto Rican officials confronting a 
diminished tourist industry will wish they
     had never brought up the subject of closing down Vieques.

     The federal government should take the lead in resolving the live-fire 
controversy. As an aside, the Puerto
     Rican National Guard routinely conducts artillery firing just south of 
Roosevelt Roads and occasionally
     lands a large-caliber round outside the impact areas--in or near a 
local town; this happened most recently
     last spring. The Puerto Rican press overlooked this training incident, 
but the Commonwealth ordered the
     National Guard to cease firing until the Navy is forced out of Vieques. 
All politics are indeed local.

     Many are at fault for the sad way this important national defense issue 
has been handled. The Navy, by
     moving out its only flag officer more than four years ago, sent the 
wrong signal to Puerto Rico: the lack of
     Department of Defense and Congressional support. The Commonwealth 
leadership, posturing for votes,
     has placed the readiness of deployable fleet units at risk. The closure 
of the U.S. bases in Panama,
     coupled with the recent relocation and expansion of the Southern 
Command and Special Operations
     Command forces in Puerto Rico, will place an even greater demand for 
live-fire training. More federal
     money, good will on both sides, and a better exchange of information 
will solve this problem.

     Let's get on with it.

     John O'Neil, U.S. Navy (Retired)

     return to top

     Published November, 1999

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