I have been working at the U.S. Navy Underwater Tracking Range on St. Croix for the past 12 years. All of us who work at the range have been following the events on Vieques with great concern. I would like to share some personal observations with you and your readers in response to some of the recently published editorials and news articles concerning the on-going situation on the island of Vieques.
The problem has gone far beyond reality and reason. Nationalism is a powerful, but sometimes unthinking, force. I think it is unfortunate that all of the emotion and rhetoric initially generated came from people who ordinarily do not have any direct relationship with the people of Vieques.
Generated by a political minority from the "big" island that has historically and routinely ignored the real problems of the Viequenos and Culebranos. The addition of CNN, the political clergy, and the posturing of celebrity opportunists (whose personal agendas can only be wondered about), made the current situation inevitable.
The accidental death of civilian guard David Sanes became the focal point and rallying cry for the movement. The unfortunate fact is that Sanes’ tragic death was avoidable; if he had only obeyed the established safety procedures that he was, in part, responsible to enforce. He was outside smoking a cigarette and watching the excitement during the "hot run" and paid the ultimate price for his poor judgement. It is noteworthy that four other civilians working inside the OP-1 safety bunker, suffered only minor injuries.
But be that as it may, I must very reluctantly agree with the consensus position that the time has come for the U.S. Navy to leave Vieques — gracefully and expeditiously as possible. Any chance of reasonable compromise is long gone.
The recent battle group has sailed away with lessened readiness. The current stream of stateside political and social opportunists have gone away. Either back to Hollywood or to federal facilities. In the words of comedian George Carlin, "Why are these people always part of the problem and never part of the solution?"
And, now, it is also time for the Puerto Rican demonstrators to back down from their confrontational tactics in order that the U.S. Navy can begin its orderly "withdrawal." It will take time but it will happen.
However, there are a number of issues that will loom large subsequent to the Navy’s "withdrawal" and no one has really begun to address them.
For those who don’t know or choose not to know; the Vieques training area has been the centerpiece of an extensive training area which extends more than two hundred miles North and South of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
The Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility (AFWTF) headquartered on the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station operates three ranges. The Inner Range, or Vieques Island, the Outer Range comprising the offshore areas for surface and aerial combat training, and the St. Croix Underwater Tracking range for Anti-Submarine Warfare exercises.
The total scope of the training evolutions conducted within these three areas is simply mind boggling. Many of these operations can be conducted in piecemeal fashion in the open ocean and/or at other ranges. This option is not cost-effective or realistically coherent but it is doable. It is the Vieques range that is unique. And the possibility of conducting all of the necessary work-ups in a unified training area is what keeps the Navy here.
As the Navy begins – and has begun – to explore alternative solutions and identifies other areas in which to conduct this necessary training, the ships of the Atlantic Fleet Carrier Battle Groups will no longer ply the Caribbean waters of the Puerto Rican Operations Areas.
As to the potential/eventual consequences of that, please consider the following.
Without the Vieques range, the Navy’s concept of "one-stop shopping" training evolutions will dissolve. The cost of bringing the Fleet to the Puerto Rico Operating Areas without being able to complete the full training cycle is prohibitive. Without Vieques, the other ranges will be closed as well. Without the ranges, there will be no real purpose in maintaining and keeping active the physically largest U.S. naval base in the world.
Base Reduction and Closure (BRAC) is always a DOD priority funding consideration and the Navy Station Roosevelt Roads is rapidly moving up the list. It is very likely Roosevelt Roads will be closed. This base reduction and closure will cost about 2,000 civilian jobs between Puerto Rico, Vieques, and the Virgin Islands.
That is the direct cost. The indirect cost is far greater and will be handed down to the contractors, purveyors, etc. who provide to much of the military’s needs.
If the base closes, more than 1,000 military personnel – Navy, Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard – will be transferred. Many of these men and women live off-base and are major contributors to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure. These jobs will not be replaced.
If and when the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station closes it is possible that the co-existing Southern Command may be forced to reconsider it’s present location in Puerto Rico and move their command headquarters to a more politically/militarily hospitable climate. End result? Many more civilian and military jobs are lost to other sites.
President George W. Bush has vowed to end the use of the Vieques bombing/gunnery range. However, there is no inherent agreement in place to turn the land over to the government of Puerto Rico. The range is federal property and may not be released without the consent of the U.S. Congress. The "wilderness option" has already been proposed in Congressional hearings.
There is no inherent agreement to environmentally clean the range. If there is no exchange of ownership, then there is no requirement to sanitize. The cost of such land renewal is staggering and funding is not identified. The total economic impact of possible base closure to Puerto Rico is substantial and potentially devastating to the Fajardo, Ceiba, and Humacao communities.
The impact to the U.S. Virgin Islands will be felt somewhat differently. If the St. Croix Underwater Tracking Range in Frederiksted is closed, 30 families will be seeking re-employment. Add the associated radar stations on St. George Hill on St. Croix and Crown Mountain on St. Thomas for another 12 families.
But it’s not simply jobs. For all three islands, take heed: No training ranges equals no ships equals no crews on liberty equals a lessened economy for all.
No one picketed the Teddy Roosevelt Battle Group when they were anchored outside or moored in the harbors of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix with 7,000 crew members in for R&R.
We welcome them! Unfortunately, the major effect of base closure would weigh in against St. Croix.
I know that all of the foregoing is a most pessimistic view. My hope is that it is just that and a different resolution is made. However, it is a realistic possibility and needs to be considered. Base closure is a difficult issue everywhere. Most states argue and lobby against closure in order to maintain their regional economies.
The 50 States have senators and representatives arguing their case at every turn. Here in the Virgin Islands we have only a Congressional Delegate to turn to. Delegate Donna Christian Christiansen was early to condemn the continuation of the Vieques training exercises even though those events have never adversely affected our islands.
The Navy wants to remain the in Virgin Islands. The current AFWTF commanding officer, Capt. Steve Shegrud, has quietly spent huge amounts of time and effort in continuing Navy outreach programs in the Virgin Islands. The list of these contributions is long, but local business’s in Frederiksted can remember the volunteer teams of Navy personnel cleaning the damage of Hurricane Lenny or perhaps Sen. Donald "Ducks" Cole will vouch for the Navy’s effo
rts in behalf of the local football program.
Certainly the people of Vieques should remember the levels of support extended to them following Hurricane Georges and all the preceding storms. Along with these community projects, the Navy is making every effort to keep the Underwater Tracking Range of St. Croix alive.
The Underwater Range is the largest of its kind worldwide and is unique to the fleet’s training requirements; providing real world operational conditions available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
With the addition of some support facilities, the St. Croix Range can stand alone without the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station. In fact, in order to remain open, several job creating options exist in the near future. St. Croix has developed harbor structures, available land on which to develop additional facilities, and importantly, heavy airlift capability at Henry Rohlsen Airport.
It is time for Gov. Charles Turnbull, Delegate Christensen, the Legislature, and our newspapers to stand for their electorate and begin the lobbying and support process that will keep the St. Croix Underwater Tracking Range and associated radar sites at work.
It is time for Virgin Islanders to begin to think proactively about what we can offer the U.S. Navy to the benefit of all. Regardless of your point of view about Vieques, the sons and daughters of the Virgin Islands who volunteer to serve their country are continually sent "in harm's way."
The quality of training provided here in the Virgin Islands will keep them safe.


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