The Navy, the Island and the Deal

Roger Trilling

I. Heaven and Hell
II. Cancer and Other Worries
III. Ni una bomba más
IV. The Pentagon's Report
V. Negotiations with Clinton: The Pullout
VI. Behind Closed Doors
VII. "Endless Liability"
VIII. As Long As it Takes

III. Ni una bomba más

On April 19, 1999, a security guard at a Navy observation post named David Sanes was killed when he was caught between two bombs dropped by Marine Corps F-18 Hornets practicing for Kosovo. He had been patrolling the perimeter, Navy witnesses said, and he died before an ambulance could arrive.

As Sanes's neighbors gathered angrily in front of City Hall, word was spreading fast. The wire services got a story out quoting activist Robert Rabín, and the next day, the New York Post weighed in with "CLOSE PUERTO RICO DEATH BASE."

As protests erupted in Puerto Rico, fifteen Viequensian fishing boats crossed Navy waters to erect a cross in Sanes's memory on an off-limits beach. The Navy did not interfere. They suspended live bombing at once.

The beach would soon be occupied by a steady stream of protesters (they are still there); among them was Rubén Berrios, leader of the Independent Party. He had served jail time a quarter-century earlier, after a successful bid to rid Vieque's sister islet Culebra of its own Navy presence.

"Given the emotions involved in the bombing of Vieques," columnist Alex Maldonado later explained, "a pro-statehood governor taking a pro-independent position was bound to ignite an explosion -- and it became a kind of jihad."

Protests were led by the Catholic Archbishop and other religious leaders. All three of Puerto Rico's normally fractious parties united in solidarity with the people, whose verdict was succinctly expressed: "Ni una bomba más!" It has remained the mantra to this day

Rosselló's reaction was immediate -- he called Clinton and sent a letter requesting a stop to the bombing. But Secretary of Defense William Cohen had already suspended the exercises, pending an investigation of his own, and Clinton refused to address the issue until the Pentagon's report came out. Rosselló created a Special Commission, under the chairmanship of the island's ex-Secretary of State Norma Burgos, to investigate.

The Navy refused to answer many of the questions posed by the Burgos Committee, and contradicted what testimony they did give. They were especially reluctant to divulge details when the Commission began to ask about weapons and materials that had been used or disposed of on Vieques. On May 10, three weeks after Sanes's death, this bred a disaster

Responding to a Freedom of Information Act query from the U.S.-based Military Toxics Project, the Navy admitted that in February 1999 it had inadvertently fired 263 "depleted uranium" penetrators at Vieques.

"DU" is a very controversial material. Nearly twice as dense as lead, it is the most effective armor-piercing weapon in the world. It was used to great effect against Iraqi tank battalions during the Gulf War. When DU explodes, it leaves a residue of fine dust which, if inhaled is certainly toxic, and according to some, radioactive. This would make inhaling even small wind-borne particles as dangerous as breathing nuclear fallout.

For years the Pentagon had been fighting Desert Storm vets who felt that DU might be partly to blame for Gulf War Syndrome (eighty-five percent of the vets had climbed on Iraqi tanks incinerated by DU). The Pentagon insisted that DU was harmless, but many scientific authorities feel otherwise, and the evidence of a military cover-up is fairly overwhelming.

The use of DU on Vieques is also illegal. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not the military, was called in to investigate. The Navy's explanation that this was an isolated incident fell on unbelieving ears.

The Navy claimed that they had notified Puerto Rico's Environmental Quality Board (EQB), but Secretary Burgos was skeptical. "This is information we have to verify, because it wouldn't surprise me if it were more incorrect information, another lie," she snapped. The EQB corroborated the lack of notification.

The fear was that the Navy, which had trained extensively for Desert Storm on Vieques, may have been firing DU penetrators at the island for years, and encouraging foreign renters to do the same (the website advertising Vieques's ranges made a point of promoting its "live-fire capability for non-conventional weapons," which is usually short- hand for nuclear, chemical, or biological ordnance.)

In the months to come, preliminary studies would find heavy-metal contamination in local coral reefs, sea grasses, fish, crabs, soil, water, and crops. But the carcinogenic effect of most heavy metals pales next to uranium which has been "ceramicized" in an explosion. And the Pentagon's admission in early 2001 that its DU had been lightly contaminated by plutonium (arguably the most dangerous substance on the planet) did little to calm Viequensian concerns over what was perceived as a spiraling cancer rate.

On June 25, Burgos's Special Commission announced their findings. The first of its thirteen recommendations was "that the Navy immediately and permanently cease and desist from all military actions on Vieques" and return "the lands held by the Navy to the people of Vieques." Further measures urged clean-up and decontamination, and an inquiry into "the alarming incidence of cancer." The findings of the Commission were immediately adopted by Governor Rosselló as the official position on Vieques of the Government of Puerto Rico.

The Navy took the legal and moral high ground. Not only did they hold uncontested title to the land, they had dedicated it to the cause of national security: "The beauty of Vieques is you can have Marines charging ashore, submarines trying to sink you, surface ships firing, airplanes dropping bombs, SEALS on the ground directing this stuff, tanks maneuvering ashore, artillery in the air, and it can all be happening at once," said James M. Stark, Commanding Officer at Roosevelt Roads. No other Atlantic range, he asserted, has that capacity. And "when you steam off to battle you're either ready or you're not. If you're not, that means casualties. That means more POWs. That means less precision and longer campaigns. You pay a price for all this in war, and that price is blood."

The Navy resumed exercises that July.

Vieques Main

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© 2001 Roger Trilling, El Andar Magazine