The Price of War Games

Two Mississippians are trying to make the U.S. military pay for its damage to a Puerto Rican island

 

By Rania Masri

Southern Exposure 32 (Winter 2005)

 

Before arriving in Vieques, Puerto Rico, earlier this year, I had imagined this small island (20 miles long by 3.5 miles wide) to be barren, destroyed by more than 50 years of U.S weapons testing. I had envisioned a brown island, a tired island.  Instead, I was spellbound by an immensely beautiful place.

 

When I walked into a local progressive radio station, I faced my second surprise: two charming men from Jackson, Mississippi. John Arthur Eaves, from Eaves Law Firm, and Bif Browning, a researcher, are trying to make the U.S. government pay for health problems that they say the people of Vieques suffer as a result of the island’s bombardment.

 

“Our [legal]claim,” explained Eaves, “is for fear and flight [damages] plus medical problems plus future medical costs. Presently, we have 7,500 people that are sick.  We want them to have enough money so each family can decide the best way to protect themselves. The Navy stated that it would honor its commitment to repair the injury to the health of the people—as long as we proved our case. And we’re going to continue working to make sure that they honor their commitment.”

 

Browning and Eaves were first invited to work on the case by Vieques resident Rodami Serato, who told them that 13 of his relatives were suffering from cancer.

 

“They started bombing the island in 1941, so the weapons they’ve used have evolved over time,” says Browning. “They’ve used everything from [small] bombs50 pounds to 100 pounds—up to 3,000 and 5,000-pound bombs. Just the sheer size of the bombs would do damage to the island and shake it and damage the structure of the house and cause a lot of nervous problems in the children.” He compares the effects of the largest bombs to earthquakes.

 

From the 1950s through the 70s, Browning says, Vieques was also the main chemical weapons testing ground.

 

“We know by the navy’s admission that they’ve used depleted uranium here. They’ve used napalm. They’ve done all kinds of electronic and radiological testing. They’ve have dispersed chemical sprays [and] defoliants, possibly Agent Orange. This island for 60-plus years has been in a state of war.”

 

“Simply put,” adds Eaves, “everything that our military has used—with the exception of the nuclear bomb—has been first tested on Vieques.”

 

The military not only used approximately 75 percent of the island for its testing range, it also tested weapons directly on the people of Vieques. According to Eaves and Browning, a former marine has revealed that during the nighttime, U.S. soldiers would come through town in jeeps dispersing chemical sprays. The two also say that a U.S. general has praised the Vieques range for the realism of its training, due to the close proximity of the civilian population.

 

The land has been so contaminated that it no longer can produce healthy food, and, thus, not only has a serious consequence on human health, but also has reduced economic health on the island. Cattle-grazing was a large scale operation, until some cattle recently tested positive for contaminants.

 

Even though the bombing has stopped, the people will continue to be exposed to toxins in the environment for years, according to Eaves, and could pass them on to their descendants.  “Generations are passing on a contaminated legacy,” says Eaves. “Until we are told of all that has been used here, and conduct the research to identify which plants can be used for bioremediation, the people will remain at risk with anything they eat. Until the Navy recognizes its responsibility and owns up to everything it used here so that science can study it more in depth, the people are at high risk.

 

“This is the clearest case of environmental racism that we have observed, and we are from Mississippi and we’ve seen many things.”

 

The people of Vieques are not alone in their suffering. “Many soldiers have been damaged by the things that were developed here in Vieques,” says Browning. “We know many of our own soldiers have type two diabetes from cellular mutation caused by Agent Orange. We know that napalm has harmed many of our soldiers. All those things were developed here in Vieques first. So, as a result of what is happening in Vieques, many soldiers have been hurt.”

 

He explains that the politics of the Vieques controversy have shifted as a result of pressure from the increasingly powerful Hispanic and Puerto Rican communities. “These people have been suffering here for many, many years. It is only recently that their voice has been heard in Washington.” The Black and Asian caucuses in the U.S. Congress have also lent their support to the cause.

 

The campaign against the Vieques live-fire testing range kicked into high gear in 1999, after a stray bomb killed a civilian security guard. In February 2003, the U.S. military finally announced it was abandoning the Vieques range. Bob Rabin, head of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques, and one of the lead organizers of the massive civil disobedience actions, calls this “a victory for Vieques, for Puerto Rico, and for the world.”

 

“The victory has given hope, given an opportunity for the earth to cure itself, opened possibilities for future environmental cleaning,” says Rabin. “This struggle epitomizes the colonial situation of Puerto Rico. And we stopped the U.S. military from using Vieques to prepare aggressive military attacks, invasions against people throughout the world.”

 

We learned, Rabin said, that “the federal systemwhen confronted by a determined communitycan be defeated.”

 

The trainings and testing, of course, continue elsewhere. According to Rabin, the military has moved its activities to several sites on the Gulf and south Atlantic coasts, in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida, including a large bombing range in the Okala forest.

 

Rabin urges Southerners to protest these facilities used to replace Vieques, as “an act of solidarity with Vieques and the rest of the world. Every step we take to stop U.S. militarism is a step towards world peace.”

 

Bob Rabin of the Committee for the Rescue and Development of Vieques can be contacted at bieke@prorescatevieques.org.

 

Rania Masri is an associate editor of Southern Exposure.