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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Judge takes up Stryker case

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

A federal judge yesterday took under advisement the Army's argument that some Stryker brigade training and six projects should go forward in preparation for an Iraq deployment.

According to court papers filed by the Army, the fast-strike brigade of 328 armored vehicles and 3,900 soldiers needs to begin training no later than Jan. 5 to meet its deployment time line.

The Army also argued that its troops are already under stress, and that moving the unit would harm soldiers and their families.

James Gette, a Justice Department attorney representing the Army, told the court that "to move this unit would be to break this unit."

The Stryker Brigade Combat Team has been told to be ready to deploy to Iraq by Nov. 1, 2007, but a government lawyer said because of logistical issues related to movement of equipment, troops will leave a few months later.

Gette said the evidence does not show there will be "tangible, irreparable injury" to the environment if the projects go forward.

Those projects include completion of:

  • Qualification Training Range 1.

  • A motor park and maintenance area.

  • An urban assault course.

  • A tactical vehicle wash.

  • A multiple deployment facility.

    Also, modifications are being sought to an existing training range at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island.

    Outside U.S. District Court yesterday, about 20 people held placards in support of the Army with statements including, "Laborers Local 368 supports the Stryker brigade," and "Our troops deserve training."

    William Aila Jr., a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the Stryker brigade, said "it's an emotional situation for all of us, because we have family members in the military who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's very difficult for us to be viewed as an impediment to their safety. At the same time, we have kuleana (responsibility) to make sure that our culture, its sites and the environment are protected."

    In court, David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney representing three Hawaiian groups in a lawsuit against the Army, acknowledged the case has elicited strong emotions on both sides, and the Army has said Stryker training is essential to save soldiers' lives.

    "As residents of Hawai'i, we appreciate that," Henkin said. But there also is concern that the Army has been insensitive to cultural harm and environmental protection, with rounds fired toward ancient burials, Henkin said.

    The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in October that the Army violated environmental law by not considering locations outside Hawai'i for the unit, and ordered the Army to conduct such a study, which may take more than a year.

    The court sent the case back to U.S. District Judge David Ezra in Honolulu to decide what an injunction must cover.

    Henkin said there is a "baseline" of past military use that some Stryker projects would exceed. Therefore, those projects shouldn't proceed, he said.

    The alternative to training here is to move the unit and its armored vehicles to Fort Lewis, Wash., for training, but that would harm families and morale, Gette said.

    Col. Stefan Banach, commander of the 2nd Brigade being transformed into a Stryker brigade, said in court papers that moving the unit would add to stress on families, which has led to domestic violence increases, drug use and suicide increases.

    Two soldiers have died from drug overdoses in the past seven months, he said, and unit DUI violations are at an all-time high.

    Henkin said the court must "take a sober look" at the facts in the case and "divorce itself from passion" in this case, a combat deployment and follow the law, which precludes any harm to the environment that would otherwise not be caused.

    Gette said the Army has proposed an equitable solution that is a limited-use alternative. "We have asked for the bare minimum," he said.

    However, Henkin said that based on past use, some Stryker training can be resumed, and use of Dillingham Airfield is acceptable along with training at Kahuku Training Area and Schofield Barracks' East Range, with some erosion-control measures. The plaintiffs also agree to other training, but not all the Army is requesting.

    Ezra said there are few things more important than the lives of men and women in uniform, but that there also are important considerations relating to the cultural history of the country.

    "There is no question in my mind that there are some activities that the Army won't be permitted to engage in," he said, adding that there are "no absolutes" in the case.

    He said he would render a decision as quickly as he can, but cautioned, "This is not something that's going to be decided in a week."

    Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.