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Paradise Lost: The Poisoning of Vieques

Robert C. Koehler

We owe the
residents of the tiny island paradise called Vieques full compensation
for the illnesses they are suffering courtesy of the U.S. Navy - and we
owe them so much more than that.

We owe them
a full accounting of what was done to their Manhattan-sized island,
about 10 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico (the island is part of
Puerto Rico and hence part of the United States) between 1941 and 2003,
when it served as the Navy's premiere weapons testing site. Bombs were
dropped and guns were tested on the eastern portion of the island at
least 200 days out of the year for 62 years; an estimated 80 million
tons of ordnance pummeled the island's fragile, tropical ecosystem over
that time, contaminating soil, water and air, and bequeathing an array
of serious health problems - cancer, birth defects, cirrhosis of the
liver and much more - to the island's 10,000 residents.

We owe them
- how can I put this? - a commitment to sanity in the realm of national
defense. What kind of defense involves the commission of war crimes
against our own citizens? We owe them a national conversation about who
we are and what we've allowed to happen in the name of national
security and global dominance.

one of the most beautiful spots I've ever visited - its stunning
features include what may be the world's largest bioluminescent bay
(microorganisms in the water glow when disturbed, as by swimmers) - was
commandeered by the U.S. military as a throwaway site for weapons
testing. The Navy occupied three-quarters of the island until 2003; it
finally left following four years of protests, which were ignited when
an errant bomb killed a civilian security guard in 1999.

Navy left but, of course, it didn't really leave. It left behind heavy
metal contaminants (arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, aluminum);
unexploded ordnance (18,700 live shells or bombs that the Navy itself
has identified); barrels of unknown, likely toxic substances dumped
into the ocean or stored on ships that were deliberately sunk; depleted
uranium; Agent Orange; napalm; secrets, lies and a legacy of
irresponsibility almost beyond comprehension.

But it's
irresponsibility in the name of national security. This implicates all
of us. The story of Vieques demonstrates that there's nothing peaceful
about preparing for war.

This small,
fragile island - sometimes called Isla Nena (Puerto Rico's "little
sister") - along with its impoverished residents, were, like the
Downwinders of Utah, Nevada and Idaho, whose health was compromised by
nuclear testing, collateral damage of the Cold War and all the pretexts
for perpetual war readiness that have succeeded it. Vieques is proof of
the flawed vision of militarism, which uses up the world.

The Navy is
in the process of cleaning up its mess, but this too is controversial
and problematic. It has detonated about a third of the unexploded
ordnance it has identified, thus continuing not only the nerve-wracking
explosions but the spread of contaminants, a problem exacerbated by the
island's east-to-west prevailing winds, which carry the smoke to the
populated portion of the island. In addition, the Navy has proposed to
burn hundreds of acres of contaminated vegetation on its former bombing
range in order to facilitate the detonation process. This proposal is
vehemently opposed by the islanders, who fear the wholesale spread of
pollutants in the process.

the Navy continues to deny that the pollution left over from six
decades of weapons testing, including secret experimentation with
biological and chemical weapons, is a health hazard to the residents of
Vieques. Ignoring inconvenient science is, of course, standard
procedure for the military.

"The pervasiveness of the contamination and the poverty of most of the
population leaves Viequenses with no way to escape the poisonous
substances," according to "The toxins are
all around them in the air they breathe, the water they drink, the soil
where they grow crops, and the food they eat. . . . Children on Vieques
are 25 percent more likely to die in infancy than those on the main
island of Puerto Rico." There are, the site explains, far higher rates
of cancer and other illnesses among the residents, and the island lacks
even a clinic, forcing residents to travel for hours by ferry (with
unreliable service) and bus to get treatment.

The damage
done to this beautiful island can never be fully undone, but perhaps a
better future - for all of us - can blossom here. This is the vision of
John Eaves, a lawyer whose firm represents, and has filed suits in U.S.
District Court on behalf of, 8,500 residents. Though he titled a legal
update he recently gave about the island "Paradise Lost," he told me:
"We see (the suits) as an opportunity for a global solution to Vieques."

The redress
the law suits are seeking, he said, include a hospital on the island,
better transportation, windmills for economic development and a
research center devoted to the study of environmental cleanup - indeed,
to the development of a new science of environmental reclamation.

contamination is, of course, a worldwide problem: the nightmare legacy
of modern war. How fitting if Vieques should become home to its

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at

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