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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 3, 2006

Live-fire training at Makua not allowed

By Ken Kobayashi
Advertiser Courts Writer

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A federal judge yesterday rejected the Army's bid to resume live-fire training at Makua Valley for soldiers scheduled to be sent to Iraq this summer.

U.S. District Judge Susan Oki Mollway characterized the Army's warnings that casualties will increase without the training as "vehement pronouncements and speculation."

She said the Army has alternative training sites and Army officials have not shown that the training will be adequate only if it can be done with live fire in the 4,190-acre valley.

The judge said the Army must abide by federal laws requiring Army officials to complete an environmental study on the impact of the exercises on endangered species and Native Hawaiian cultural sites before troops can resume training there with live fire.

The Army expects the study to be completed in March or April. Schofield Barracks is sending about 7,000 soldiers to Iraq in August, some who would have received live-fire training at Makua Valley.

The 35-page decision was clearly a setback for Army officials who had hoped the judge would exempt them from the requirement because of what they contend was a pressing need to adequately train troops for war.

But it was hailed by Malama Makua, a community group that believes the live-fire exercises threaten the valley's biological, cultural and archaeological resources.

"The Army appreciates the court's thoughtful consideration of this matter, but unfortunately the court did not fully consider the training requirements for the global war on terrorism nor the ongoing environmental programs," Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commanding general of the 25th Infantry Division, said in a statement.

He said the soldiers need the best and "most realistic training possible to survive and win on today's battlefield." The Makua Military Reservation plays a "significant role" in providing the training.

"Today's ruling makes the task for training our soldiers more difficult," he said.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who represented Malama Makua, said Mollway made the right ruling. "It's a difficult decision to make given the political climate, but she saw through the rhetoric and she focused on the facts and the law," he said.

Fred Dodge, a member of the board of directors for Malama Makua, said the Army had agreed to complete the environmental study as soon as possible more than four years ago, but still has not done so. As part of the agreement, the group agreed to allow limited live-fire training.

"They kind of wanted to have their cake and eat it, too," Dodge said.

The Army's live-fire exercises have been a sore point among environmentalists and others seeking to protect historic and cultural sites and endangered species.

In 2000, Malama Makua filed a lawsuit and obtained an injunction halting such exercises until the completion of the study required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Army and the group reached an agreement in October 2001 so the Army could resume limited live-fire exercises for three years. The Army also agreed it would end the live-fire training after three years if the environmental impact statement still had not been completed.

The Army's last live-fire training was in the summer of 2004.

Although the study was not completed, the Army asked that the live-fire training be allowed for the troops scheduled to be deployed to Iraq.

Army lawyers argued the agreement should be modified because the situation has changed since October 2001, with the U.S. now embroiled in a war with an intensity and duration that could not have been foreseen.

But Mollway said the request comes after the three-year period that allowed for modifications. In addition, she said the Army anticipated it would go to war and its units would need to be trained.

The judge said adequate training is "undeniably critical."

"But the Army does not establish for this court that training will only be adequate if live-fire training occurs at Makua," she said.

She said there are other training locations, citing live-fire training exercises at the National Training Center in California and the Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island. She also said many soldiers are scheduled to be trained elsewhere and the need for more training at Makua can only be determined after the other exercises have occurred.

"If training at Makua is essential, it is the Army's burden on this motion to show that," she said. "The Army does not do that."

She ruled that the Army cannot conduct live-fire training until it completes the environmental impact statement.

Sparky Rodrigues, president of Malama Makua, said he was disappointed about the Army's assertions that casualties would increase. He said the group doesn't want to see that, either.

"I think that's really an indication of poor leadership if they are going to send troops into battle that are not trained with all of the facilities they have available at their beck and call throughout the United States as well as here," he said.

In his statement, Mixon referred to the ruling as a "temporary setback." He said the Army will continue to train soldiers "as thoroughly and realistically as possible in preparation for the upcoming deployment."

He said the training will include blank-fire exercises at Makua.

"We will continue to complete the environmental impact statement and all other necessary actions to begin training in Makua," he said.

Reach Ken Kobayashi at kkobayashi@honoluluadvertiser.com.