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Senator Inhofe fights for military preparedness

By Nicholas Sanchez
web posted August 6, 2001

Among conservative activists in the Beltway, it is well-known that of all the Members of the United States Senate, you would be hard-pressed to find a more "true blue" conservative than the junior Senator from Oklahoma, Jim Inhofe. As a liaison between activists and his colleagues, Senator Inhofe has done an admirable impersonation of Gunga Din, carrying a great deal of water for the conservative movement in legislative matters.

Jim InhofeBecause of his faithful service to conservative causes, Sen. Inhofe has been able to persuade many social conservative leaders -- who are often dispassionate on issues that do not relate strictly to social policy -- to join arms with defense experts on an issue that he really feels passionate about. I speak, of course, of Vieques Island.

Although it is only about 80 square miles of land off the east side of Puerto Rico, this small island that has been a political firecracker for the past few years. Vieques has served as a live-fire training site for the Navy for the past six decades. The military brass has considered Vieques an indispensable training center because it allows soldiers to undergo "amphibious-assault" training for land, sea and air forces. In addition to its geographical diversity, its close proximity to the United States provides the Atlantic Fleet with a strategic location to practice warfare maneuvers with live ammunition and bombs.

This activity has not sat well with the Puerto Rican government and many left-wing Congressmen and activists in the United States. For many years now, in fact, the rallying cry from many Puerto Ricans has been "Yankees, go home!" And although Bill Clinton & Co. would have been more than happy to call a cease-fire on Vieques, he didn't. (Which is surprising, given the large number of Puerto Rican voters in New York.)

During the many debates that raged over this issue in the last Administration, Jim Inhofe was the one voice to consistently speak out on Vieques. In fact, in defending the United States' presence on the island, Jim Inhofe became the most educated Member of the Senate on this issue, bar none. In fact, in any given meeting with the Senator, it could be taken for granted that regardless of what business you wanted to discuss with him, eventually he would bring up Vieques and the necessity of maintaining our training there. How's that for staying on message?

With the inauguration of a reliably conservative Republican president this past January, those who have paid close attention to this issue slept better at night, secure in the hope that finally the debate surrounding the removal of the U.S. military from Vieques would finally come to an end. Such optimism, however, proved unfounded.

In a surprise announcement, President George W. Bush made it clear that he intended for a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vieques by May 2003. This decision did not sit well with Sen. Inhofe. Nevertheless, despite the opposition of a friendly president, Inhofe continued to remind his colleagues and the media that removing the U.S. from Vieques would ultimately come at an inordinately high price: the lives of our military men and women.

A protestor at the U.S. Navy test range
A protestor at the U.S. Navy test range

Recently, Inhofe's lonely position received unlikely vindication. On August 1st, the Armed Services Committee in the House of Representatives passed a measure that prohibits the closing of the Navy firing range on Vieques until a replacement can be found that is "as good or better" than the current location. Congressman Silvestre Reyes, a Texas Democrat, offered a quote shortly after this vote that shows exactly why the U.S. should stay in Vieques: "How can we replicate the same kind of training site?... It would be difficult if not impossible." [Emphasis added.]

If our elected representatives are concerned with the readiness of our military forces, then why would they deprive them of a site that can be used to prepare them for combat? Especially if there is, admitted freely from the other side, no acceptable substitute for the current location.

Despite the president's decree, this issue is not over yet. In November there is a referendum that will be voted on by the residents of Vieques to stop the live-fire training. And although it will likely pass, the House's latest action may prevent the actual removal for many years.

In any case, those men and women in our Armed forces and their families should send along a huge thanks to Jim Inhofe. He has fought doggedly for a strong, prepared military and has been willing to do more than just offer lip service. ESR

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