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The Star-Ledger

Playing Politics With Our Fliers

By Paul Mulshine

January 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002
The Star-Ledger. All Rights Reserved.

You know that F-16 fighter that crashed near the Warren Grove bombing range the other day? Imagine if it had crashed near the Vieques bombing range in Puerto Rico . Newspapers all over the world would have put it in headlines. TV stations would have broadcast interviews with weeping villagers. You would have heard about U.S. imperialism, depleted uranium, you name it.

Instead, it crashed in the New Jersey Pinelands. So Al Sharpton won't be going on a hunger strike, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. won't be filing any lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act and New York Gov. George Pataki won't be using the crash in his campaign to be re-elected.

We can be thankful for that, I suppose. But it might be nice if all of those politicians would stop for a second and ponder the fact that there is a war on and their efforts aren't helping things. There's no reason the citizens of Vieques shouldn't make the same sacrifices as citizens who live near military bases all over America.

In the case of my own Ocean County, on the same day that plane crashed near houses and a road, the local paper carried stories about the plutonium cleanup at a former missile base in another part of the county. And unlike the depleted uranium bullets the Vieques activists whine about, plutonium really is deadly.

But Ocean County residents are not screaming for a U.S. military pullout. So why is Vieques getting special treatment from politicians right on up to President Bush? In what many saw as an effort to help Pataki's re-election bid, Bush caved in to demands that the Vieques range be taken out of service in the near future. And recent news reports indicate that the John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier battle group will soon be sailing from Norfolk, Va., to the Mideast war zone without first getting badly needed training at the only spot in the Atlantic where that training can be had Vieques

I discussed the issue recently with a guy I'll call Bomber Bob. Bob is not his real name. I spoke to him without going through military channels, so I can't identify him. What I can tell you is that he does what Bush's father used to do. He flies airplanes off aircraft carriers. He sits in the back seat and takes care of the details of releasing bombs while the pilot points the plane.

Bob trained on Vieques before President Clinton shut it down. Vieques is an ideal place to stage Marine landings backed with live fire, Bob said. But Clinton discontinued live fire in 1999 after a civilian worker was killed there (a civilian worker was killed at Lakehurst around the same time; Clinton was too busy to notice). The training on Vieques since then has involved dummy bombs.

"You need to practice and train the way you fight," Bob said. "You're not going to drop inert bombs on the enemy. You're going to drop live bombs."

Modern-day bombers find the target with infrared sensors. A live bomb disrupts these sensors for the next plane coming in. Training with live bombs gives fliers the opportunity to deal with this effect, Bob said. "When you're dropping practice bombs, you get a false sense of security. When you have a live bomb, you're going to have fragmentation that comes up in the air and goes sideways and may obscure the target. If you have a practice bomb, you're not going to have that."

Without Vieques , the fliers have had to do their training in Arizona. That means they can't fly off carriers and that in turn means they are not experiencing the same stresses they will experience in combat.

"You wouldn't want a race car driver to drive around at 60 mph in a Ford Escort and then the next day go race around a track in a race car at 180 miles per hour. The more comfortable you are with a high level of stress, the better you'll do in combat. You fight the way you train."

Fighting is something Bob has seen quite a bit of. He's flown a lot of missions enforcing the no-fly zone in Iraq, which entails getting shot at regularly. It is his considered opinion that if he can deal with the risk of getting blown out of the sky protecting American citizens, then those citizens should be able to put up with a little racket.

"Sure, they can hear the noise," Bob said of the residents of Vieques . "But there's no danger to anybody on the island. They're just too far away."

They may be far away from the bombing, but they're close to a lot of politicians. Pataki wants to be governor. Al Sharpton wants to be president. As for Robert F. Kennedy Jr., I don't know what he wants to be. But he certainly doesn't want to be the guy who reminds the people of Vieques to ask what they can do for their country. That was his uncle, the one the aircraft carrier is named after.

As for Bomber Bob, when he blasts off the carrier deck, all he wants is to get home to his family alive. And he thinks he'd have a better chance of that if he could train at Vieques.

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