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Vieques Clash Poses Dilemma For Some Sailors

Many Find Themselves Torn Between Loyalties To Navy And Family Ties To Puerto Rico

by Stewart M. Powell

December 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999 TIMES UNION, Albany, NY. All Rights Reserved.

ABOARD USS DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER -- Ismael Virole III, a New Yorker with family ties to Puerto Rico, skillfully matches missiles, bombs and bullets with Navy warplanes before the aircraft catapult off the flight deck of this airport-at-sea.

The Navy used to fire this type of ordnance at a beach-front target range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques before a popular clamor forced the service to abandon 58 years of integrated live-fire combat training there.

So the 16-ship battle group led by the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower sails in February for the Persian Gulf without live-fire rehearsals at Vieques.

That's just fine with Virole, 22, a four-year veteran of duties on the Eisenhower, who wears the red shirt of an aviation ordnance specialist working on the flight deck.

"We're doing a good job training without Vieques," says Virole. "If Puerto Rico says they want the Navy to leave Vieques, the United States should respect that."

Another sailor, David Alvarado, a native of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, says some members of his family back home like to pester him with questions about why the Navy wants to resume bombing, shelling and strafing the Vieques target range, which has been closed since a bombing accident killed a Navy contract security guard last April.

Alvarado, a petty officer with 15 years of Navy service, also says he sympathizes with the demands of Puerto Ricans that the Navy should get out of Vieques.

"People are afraid of what kinds of weapons the Navy will throw in there," says Alvarado, who wears the white shirt of a storekeeper and cargo handler on the flight deck.

But Alvarado is equally sympathetic with the Navy's insistence that it must conduct integrated live-fire combat training before deploying to potential hot spots like the Persian Gulf.

"We need to train to be ready," says Alvarado. "You can't go into the ring without being ready."

Paul Soto, 22, a sailor from Arecibo, Puerto Rico, with 19 months in the Navy, says he also supports Puerto Ricans ' campaign to have the Navy withdraw from Vieques and turn over the land to local authorities.

The bitter standoff between the Navy and Puerto Rico over the use of the Vieques target range falls heavily on the shoulders of some sailors aboard this aircraft carrier who voice loyalties to both the Navy and to their families and friends in Puerto Rico who want the Navy to give up 22,000 acres of Navy-owned land and find a target range elsewhere.

The Navy owns two-thirds of the 52-square-mile island with the other third inhabited by more than 9,300 residents. All Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth and eligible for military service.

The fatal accident has ignited a rare crusade, rallying many of Puerto Rico 's 3.8 million residents as well as the 2.8 million other Puerto Ricans who live in New York City, New Jersey, Illinois and other enclaves across the United States.

Puerto Rico 's political leaders and allies such as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Vice President Al Gore have united to demand an end to Navy combat exercises and the Navy's phased withdrawal from Vieques.

Among the 2,700 sailors aboard the USS Eisenhower are several hundred Hispanic-Americans -- some of whom trace their family ties back to Puerto Rico.

Navy Capt. H. Denby Starling II, commander of the 1,092-foot ship that will lead the battle group to the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf on Feb. 18, has tried to keep sailors abreast of developments in Vieques with straightforward daily updates.

The goal, Starling says, has been to "better educate Ike warriors on the Vieques issue."

Sailors aboard the Eisenhower said they learned only after leaving port in early December that their battle group was being diverted from final combat training on Vieques. Instead, the flotilla was directed to train at an improvised patchwork of sites along the East Coast. The result: Pilots, Marines and naval gunfire crews trained separately without the final all-out three-day war that has readied departing Navy battle groups for decades.

For most sailors, the location of their training makes little difference. "For the guys who assemble the bombs, it's all the same to us whether we're off Vieques or North Carolina," says Navy Cmdr. Duane Nestor, 38, of Belle Fourche, S.D., the red-shirted "gun boss" in charge of the 23 ordnance magazines located as far as 11 decks below the "roof" where planes land and depart.

But sailors from Puerto Rico say they closely followed the Vieques controversy, an issue that tugs at their hearts.

Alvarado, who served for five months on Vieques with the Navy Seabees, says that sailors aboard U.S. warships offshore can't know what its like to be on the island when Navy warships are firing 5- inch guns and Navy and Marine warplanes are bombing as Marines storm ashore.

"We're not there to feel the full impact of all that," says Alvarado.

Throughout the dispute, Puerto Rico 's political leaders have emphasized that their crusade to oust the Navy from Vieques does not signal anti-Navy sentiment.

Puerto Rico's rate of military enlistment tops 49 states and is exceeded only by Hawaii's. More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have served in the armed forces since the United Sates annexed the island in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Four Puerto Rican GIs have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for battlefield valor.

Puerto Rico 's political leaders support continued operations at the Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, an 8,600-acre installation on the main island of Puerto Rico that employs 5,000 people, including 2,500 civilians, pumping $300 million a year into Puerto Rico's economy.

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