Bombing Vieques

Live Bombs Litter Sea Near Puerto Rican Isle

Tonight the U.S. Navy is fighting in a military conflict may have never heard of: The island of Vieques near Puerto Rico has been under all-out assault. In fact, the Navy has been bombing Vieques for 50 years.

Vieques is the only place the Navy's Atlantic fleet launches full combat training with live ammunition. But after a tragic accident last year, the people of Puerto Rico have demanded an end to that training. Some have even stood as human shields on the target range.

As 60 Minutes II reported in October, the Navy says it is being forced to send men and women overseas without the training that could save their lives. Next year, the new commander in chief, whoever that may be, will have his first conflict already very much in progress.


Click here to read the October report and the August update:
  • October Report
  • August Update

  • October Report
    Vieques is usually a quiet place. Just off Puerto Rico's east coast, it is a small island with around 9,000 inhabitants, mostly American citizens.

    But all is not peaceful: The Navy owns two-thirds of the island and for the past 50 years has regularly used part of that land as a practice range to train its troops to use live ordnance.

    Much of the Navy's land is a buffer zone between the residents and the bomb range on the eastern tip. That tip is the only place in the Atlantic where the Navy can practice an all-out assault combining marine landings, naval gunfire and air strikes.

    But the islanders say that living in a quasi-war zone has seriously damaged their environment and health.

    "I think that if this were happening in Manhattan, or if it were happening in Martha's Vineyard, certainly the delegations from those states would make certain that this would not continue," said Puerto Rican Governor Pedro Rossello.

    But without Vieques, the Navy will not be able to train its troops properly, says Rear Admiral William Fallon, commander of the Atlantic Fleet. "It's about combat risk," he said.

    "The reason we do the live-fire training is because we need to prepare our people for this potential, this eventuality," he continued.

    "If we don't do it, we put them at a very, very direct risk," he said. "That's why it's so important to the Navy and the nation."

    Puerto Rico commissioned a study of the damage and hired explosives experts Rick Stauber and James Barton to survey the island. The two men said that there is a "wide array" of unexploded live ordnance scattered around the island and on the sea floor around it.

    Island View
    To find out more about the issue, take a look at the Vieques Times.
    Twice a year, the Navy disposes of unexploded ordnance dropped on land. But according to the Navy, retrieving bombs from under the sea is far too dangerous, and blowing them up where they've dropped would do more harm than good.

    But leaving them also poses a danger: The bombs eventually rot away; the explosive inside, a suspected carcinogen, leaks into the environment.

    All the Navy bombs are supposed to be inside the borders of the range. Most are, but Barton has found other pieces of ordnance in civilian waters.

    Furthermore, Stauber said the Marines are using an ecologically fragile bay as a dump for used ordnance. "This right here is a sore thumb," he said, looking at the site.

    Rear Admiral Fallon's response: "There has certainly been some ordnance that has ended up in the water in years past. The fact remains that this is an ordnance range. The reason there's so much land down there that's in Navy hands is precisely to keep it away from the civilian population."

    Puerto Rico insists that civilians are suffering. It claims the cancer rate here is 27 percent higher than anywhere else in the islands. There is no evidence the Navy is to blame. But the federal government has agreed to study it.

    These environmental and health concerns have worried Puerto Ricans for decades. But Vieques became a full-blown crisis after one disastrous mistake.

    Naval Affairs
    To find out more about the U.S. Navy, take a look at its official site.
    In April 1999, a young Marine pilot, fresh out of flight training, was trying to drop two 500-pound bombs. It was a cloudy twilight; the pilot thought he was low on fuel.

    At that point, he thought he spotted his target. He was wrong: He zeroed in on an observation post more than a mile away. The two bombs killed David Sanes, a civilian secrity guard.

    Sanes' death galvanized the revolt. He was the first civilian to die in 50 years of training at Vieques. But his death released emotions building for years.

    The resentment spilled out onto the bomb range itself. Hundreds of Puerto Ricans invaded the target area. Many are still there dug into the beach, as human shields.

    One of the protestors on the range is Ruben Berrios, a Puerto Rican senator who advocates independencs from the United States.

    He said that Navy ownership of Vieques is immoral.

    "This is an outdated facility and they can do the things they're doing here in many other places," he said.

    The standoff means that the Eisenhower Battle Group may become the first armada in the Atlantic to go overseas without live-fire training.

    The problem could have practical consequences: The Eisenhower has orders to steam to the Persian Gulf in a few months where its squadrons will fly combat air patrol over Iraq.

    One of those pilots is Lieutenant Commander Tony Ludovici, who flies an F-14 Tomcat. Now he trains by running partial missions. Ludovici's mission is to bomb a simulated surface-to-air missile site on Vieques in exactly the kind of strike he could face in Iraq. 48 Hourswent along to understand the problems from the cockpit.

    Island's Charms
    To find out more about Vieques, check out a travel site for the island.
    For air crews, simply arriving at the target is difficult and dangerous. But the real challenge is supposed to be actually hitting the target.

    Normally Ludovici would dive for the target with live bombs on his wings and live Marines landing on the beach. That leaves little room for error.

    Why is dropping real, live ordnance all that important?

    "By carrying and delivering live ordnance we get to become proficient and validate our procedures and our tactics from the time that we bring that weapon out of the magazine back at the ship to the time that it hits the target," Ludovici said.

    "It more closely simulates combat. And the closer you can simulate that combat the more likely you'll perform your mission properly," he said.

    But for one particular mission, the F-14s train their sights on the Vieques target range - and then fly away.

    "That's like telling a baseball pitcher that befre the game he's going to warm up; he's going to go though the motions but not release the ball and see where his pitches are going," Ludovici said.

    Back on the carrier, Ludovici can only wonder whether the mission might have been a success.

    "We have some aviators on this squadron and in this air wing that have recently shown up," he said. "And they have not had the opportunity to go into a complex target environment, with live bombs, and find that target and put that bomb on target, on time."

    "And the first time they're probably going to have the opportunity to do that, since we can't do it down here during our Vieques training is in combat," he added.

    And Ludovici said, given the exigencies of modern war, in which "collateral damage" is such an important consideration, accuracy takes on even greater importance.

    The Navy insists that Vieques is the only place for this training, because the sea lanes and airways are generally clear of commercial traffic. No other island offers so much uninhabited space. And taxpayers have already invested billions on tracking stations and sensors that monitor the war games.

    "We have not found another place on the East Coast," Fallon said. "And we have looked everywhere from Canada to Mexico - and thoughout the Caribbean."

    The battle of Vieques is now in the hands of the president. In June 1999, he appointed a commission to study the crisis. Unfortunately for the Navy, the president may not have waited for the results.

    Shortly after the commission was organized, Mr. Clinton received a letter from Berrios, protesting the Navy's presence on Vieques.

    He sent the letter to his national security adviser with a note attached reading, "I agree with this. This is wrong. I don't think they want us there; that's the main point. The Navy can find a way to work around it."

    The Navy said it will be back in these waters in December 1999 and it must have its bomb range back by then. Fallon said he can't in good conscience send his troops into combat without live-fire training at Vieques.

    "There is a tremendous amount of emotion," he said. "I'm responsible for training and preparing these young men and women in our services to go forward and to face combat."

    "My responsibility to the American people is to make sure their sons and daughters are adequately trained. I can't do that right now," he said.

    August Update

    Puerto Rico's governor accepted the White House compromise that restricts the Navy to dropping only nonexplosive bombs on the island.

    The U.S. government is offering to spend $50 million on improving the island if the voters will accept live fire training again.

    The referendum is scheduled for next year - but it's a tough sell for the Navy. Just last weekend 5,000 Puerto Ricans turned out to protest the new, limited, exercises.