N. Carolinians to Navy: No bombs in our backyards
r As Navy searches for alternative training sites to Vieques Island, US communities sound the alarm.
VERONA, N.C. — Up here on High Hill, which isn't so high, John Campbell feels as if his brick bungalow has become a bunker. He jumps at the racket of small-arms fire ricocheting through the scrub pines. Tanks roll up the road, creaking and complaining past McCoy's Garage and M'own Doll Hospital.
"It's not war, but it's a war zone," says Mr. Campbell, a UPS driver who lives about half a mile from where US Marine platoons train for battle. "The fact is, we can't take any more."
But thanks to protests over military bombing exercises on Vieques Island in Puerto Rico, the battle of Verona may grow louder. The US Navy, which has promised to leave Vieques by 2003, is taking a hard look at where to move its training ground. And right now, the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) says one potential replacement is at the Marines' Camp LeJeune - well within earshot of Campbell's home.
But the bombs may not be the only things to relocate from Vieques, as citizens here bristle at the thought of more friendly fire in their backyard. If it's unacceptable to conduct bombing exercises on an island near Puerto Rico, many residents say, why is it all right to hold them off the coast of North Carolina? Answering that question may prove a difficult public-relations maneuver for the Navy.
"I don't think it's a good move to start leaking ideas that suggest to the casual viewer that you're going to start bombing the beaches of Texas and North Carolina," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Part of the problem may be a population that feels a growing disconnection from its military, and that has difficulty understanding why their community should sacrifice quality of life for national defense. Already, a grumble is growing at other potential sites around the US. In Texas, the Navy scuttled a proposal for more bombing after the Sierra Club threatened a protest. In Virginia, some citizens are suing for emotional and financial suffering from base noise. And in North Carolina, a group has gathered to thwart low-flying Harrier maneuvers near Cherry Point.
The arrival of Navy battleships near Verona is far from certain. But the steadfast symbiosis that has emerged between eastern North Carolinians and the Marines is sure to factor in the Navy's decision. In fact, the Marines have been blowing up this stretch of sandy real estate for half a century, a spokesman for Camp LeJeune points out. That's longer than many of the houses have been here.
Experts say that protests are unlikely to reach the international proportions of those on Vieques.
"I doubt that there would be the same level of protests here as in Puerto Rico," says Peter Feaver, an analyst with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies in Durham, N.C. "For one thing, the issue does not have the overlay of colonialism and nationalism that made Vieques so thorny."
Still, residents say the battle noise can be deafening - and they aren't eager to add the Navy to the Marine contingent already here. Near Nag's Head, jets regularly buzz tourists. Off shore, fishing boats scramble to get out of the way when the Marines signal they're about to lob tank shells to waterborne targets. On some days in Manteo, N.C., verses of the play "Lost Colony" get drowned out by the boom of battle.
To many, any plan to boost this commotion just doesn't make sense. "The area here is not as large as Vieques, the population here is far greater, and the danger of a stray shell doing harm is more intense here than it would be in Puerto Rico," says Fred Holt, a county commissioner in Onslow County. "This is a political situation, and it's bad politics."
Indeed, Mr. O'Hanlon says the emerging situation here may cause the Navy to rethink the battle-scale maneuvers that took place on Vieques and instead focus on smaller skirmishes using quieter "smurf" bombs, as the Army has done in recent years. The Navy has hired two retired North Carolina soldiers - Gen. Charles Wilhelm and Adm. Leighton "Snuffy" Smith - to make a second recommendation by next spring. Navy officials say that, in fact, the plan is likely to focus on smaller skirmishes and simulations.
Still, a growing number of former Marines, who settled in the area after their tours of duty, have joined the clamor against the plan. "We've got well over 100,000 people living around Camp Lejeune and 9,000 people living in Vieques," says Robert Goins, a retired Marine colonel. If the Navy ships pull in, they'd be firing over the Intracoastal Waterway, and over his home in Hubert. Others point out that those plans may threaten the region's increasingly important mainstay: tourists.
Campbell has become a shirt-sleeved general for the civilians on High Hill. "We've protested so much, it's pathetic," he says.