Leaving Vieques in Peace

Military readiness is a national priority for Americans, whether they are in the military or not.

The military, however, must remember what its readiness protects - normal civilian life, including the exercise of rights and freedom.

And civilians should not forget that readiness requires some sacrifice, whether in paying taxes, having a family member in uniform, or enduring a military base nearby.

In one controversial case - US Navy training on Vieques, a small island that's part of Puerto Rico - the need for readiness and the call for sacrifice are out of balance and need fixing.

The Navy has used an unpopulated section of the island as a bombing and gunnery range since 1941. But the service's coexistence with the island's 9,400 civilians has been strained for a number of years. The death of a civilian guard at the naval post two years ago from an inaccurately dropped live bomb catalyzed the opposition.

A deal reached after that incident between Washington and Puerto Rico allowed the Navy to use inert bombs and shells, pending a plebiscite in which Vieques residents can decide whether they want the Navy to leave. If they vote against the Navy, the actual departure would take place in 2003. The vote is set for November.

But a new administration in San Juan, led by Gov. Sila Calderon, wants that schedule accelerated. She argues that new medical studies indicate the island's people have suffered physically from the proximity of exploding ordinance. The Navy doubts this, and scientific analysis of the health effects is still ongoing.

But whatever the outcome of that analysis, the Navy can't ignore growing public opposition in Puerto Rico to its continued use of Vieques for target practice. Its best course is to start phasing out the bombing now and seek out other sites for its readiness exercises. It's true that Vieques has been a particularly useful site, allowing air, land, or sea operations. But the wishes of the island's people should be respected.

Most Vieques Islanders will probably vote against the Navy this fall. Washington and the Navy should anticipate that and prepare to depart without rancor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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