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Orlando Sentinel

Navy Plans More Live Fire Training In Florida

By Sean Mussenden

November 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

AVON PARK -- The Navy is planing to step up live fire bombing runs in Florida as it braces for the impending closure of the controversial Vieques range, a top Navy official said Monday.

With the Navy set to leave the Puerto Rican island -- its premier Atlantic training site -- next May, it is taking steps to relocate training exercises to ranges across the Southeast. "We've been using Vieques for years and years and years . . . But the reality is we're leaving Vieques," said Adm. Robert J. Natter. He spent Monday morning meeting with community leaders near the Air Force Training Range at Avon Park, one of three Florida sites where the Navy hopes to increase its use of live munitions.

The Navy plans to increase non-live fire training missions at four other Florida sites. It runs live fire exercises at Eglin Air Force Base in the Panhandle and Pinecastle Bombing Range in the Ocala National Forest, said Capt. Michael E. Brady, and hopes to add Avon Park to that list.

A training accident killed a civilian guard in Vieques in 1999, touching off a firestorm of criticism. Protestors from Puerto Rico and beyond successfully pressured the U.S. government to force the Navy off the island.

With that in mind, Natter -- the top official in the Atlantic Fleet -- and his deputies are gauging public sentiment near the sites where the Navy hopes to increase its bombing activities, like Ocala, or begin new live fire activities, like Avon Park. The Air Force uses Avon Park for training.

In stark contrast to Puerto Rico, where bombing galvanized everyone from island politicians and activists to celebrities such as actor Martin Sheen, there seems to be little opposition to the expansion in Florida.

The Florida Coalition for Peace and Justice has opposed dropping live munitions on environmental grounds. Carol Mosley, state coordinator, could not be reached for comment Monday. The Navy is conducting environmental impact studies in advance of the increased bombing activities in Florida, Natter said.

The military and defense contractors bring more than $30 billion to the state every year. With base closings always a possibility, the state has an interest in remaining a willing partner with the Department of Defense, said Pamella Dana, director of Gov. Jeb Bush's Office of Tourism, Trade, and Economic Development.

"Other states that are giving the military fits at every turn, the military might not choose to stay there," said Dana, who is working with the Navy to bring the increased training activities.

In Avon Park, a tiny town in the conservative citrus and cattle country, the bombs that fall almost daily at the nearby 125-square-mile range are loud enough to rattle windows.

"You might have had a few people complain before 9-11, but not after. We need to be ready," said John Thompson, who runs a fish camp on Lake Arbuckle at the range entrance.

"As long as we drop one on Osama, they can drop live bombs here all they want," said Marcus Lanfier, 18, taking a smoke break inside a convenience store near the range.

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