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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 5, 2003

Army reaches agreement on limited Makua training

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

A compromise has been reached that will allow the Army to conduct convoy ambush training at Makua Military Reservation next week while prohibiting the mortars and artillery that in the past have started fires and can destroy cultural sites.

Yesterday's agreement to modify a federal court settlement — which still needed the stamp of approval from U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway — was made recognizing that 4,500 Schofield Barracks soldiers will deploy to Iraq in February, followed by 3,500 soldiers leaving for Afghanistan in April.

The 2001 settlement with Malama Makua allowing a return to live-fire training in the 4,190-acre valley followed similar compelling circumstances: the Sept. 11 attacks.

"While we don't believe that any military training at Makua is appropriate, we understand the Army's desire to make sure its soldiers are prepared to defend themselves," said Malama Makua board member Sparky Rodrigues.

"We looked for a way to let the Army do this defensive training while limiting the potential to damage the cultural sites and native species that make Makua so precious," Rodrigues said.

Col. David Anderson, commander of U.S. Army Garrison, Hawai'i, yesterday said that the Army was "pleased that an agreement could be made with Earthjustice and Malama Makua for the use of the Makua Valley in a brief, efficient manner."

"Live-fire is key and essential to train our soldiers and leaders so they have the skills and experience to react to enemy fire while in a convoy," Anderson said.

The compromise was made after a massive July brush fire and with the Army potentially being shut out of combined arms live-fire exercises, or CALFEXES, before the two big deployments.

The company-size exercises use mortars, artillery and machine-gun-firing helicopters to simulate the complexity of battle.

Fire damaged valley

Under the 2001 settlement, the Army is allowed 12 CALFEXES in Makua for a yearlong period beginning Oct. 4, but a July 22 Army "controlled burn" got out of control and burned half of the valley, triggering a lengthy habitat protection review under federal environmental law.

Should the Army decide to conduct those exercises — which it hasn't so far — Malama Makua could go back to court to block them. The convoy exercises count as two CALFEXES.

The convoy ambush training agreement allows the Army to use three to four trucks with no more than 13 soldiers per truck firing at pop-up silhouette targets simulating attackers.

Live-fire training will be conducted between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Dec. 8-12, and Dec. 15-19, Army officials said.

Helicopters will accompany the trucks, and .50-caliber machine guns, pistols and rifles will be used, along with artillery simulators.

Maj. Stacy Bathrick, a spokeswoman for the 25th Infantry Division (Light), previously said the soldiers receiving the training would be those deploying to Afghanistan in April.

With so many soldiers training, Bathrick said "we must use all of our available training areas ... Makua Valley is essential to conduct the convoy live-fire training that will save our soldiers' lives in combat."

Earthjustice said artillery shells and mortars can destroy heiau, petroglyphs and other sites surrounding the impact area, and have a history of starting fires.

The July fire destroyed at least 71 individual endangered plants and 150 acres of critical habitat, Earthjustice said.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said eight new cultural sites, including two petroglyphs, boundary walls and prehistoric dwellings were found after the fire.

Protection a key goal

More than 40 endangered plants and animals are found in the valley.

"Our overriding goal is to ensure that the Army complies with its legal duty to protect Makua's biological and cultural treasures," Henkin said.

The Army said it had reviewed live-fire areas for the convoy exercises and does not believe any cultural sites are at risk.

Troy Griffin, deputy public affairs officer for the 25th Division, said he was not sure what plans, if any, the Army has for follow-up convoy training or CALFEXES after Dec. 19.

"Right now, the effort for the division is to get the 2nd Brigade (heading to Iraq) out the door, and this is the 3rd Brigade (heading to Afghanistan) that we're doing this (convoy training) for," Griffin said. "That's where we've really put our emphasis, and I don't think we're looking much further."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-5459.