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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 10, 2006

Army returns to Makua: It's not quite live, but it'll do

Makua Valley training photos

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter lifts off after carrying elements of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment to a landing zone in Makua Valley. The soldiers, part of the Schofield Barracks-based 25th Infantry Division, were taking part in a company-level blank-fire air assault exercise.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Officers in charge of yesterday's training exercise at Makua Valley gather near range control. The blank-fire exercise marked the first time 25th Infantry Division soldiers have trained on the ground at Makua in about 18 months.

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A flight of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters from the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade prepares to land in Makua Valley. The helicopters were carrying soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment.

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An OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter provides support for ground troops. The helicopter is used for reconnaissance, security and command-and-control missions, among other things.

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A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter flies off after carrying 25th Infantry Division ground troops into Makua Valley.

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MAKUA VALLEY Army helicopters droned through this mountain-backed military training range yesterday, dropping off combat soldiers who maneuvered up to and cleared a "safe house" that contained enemy Iraqi combatants.

It was the first time in 18 months that ground troops used the area that includes below-ground trenches, above-ground structures covered in old tires, pop-up targets, and enough room to fire mortars and artillery over the soldiers' heads to replicate battle.

But the rat-a-tat of machine-gun fire came from blanks, and an environmental attorney said it's likely to stay that way through the scheduled summer deployment of 7,000 Schofield Barracks soldiers to Iraq.

In the latest twist to the long-running legal dispute between the Army and both environmentalists and Hawaiian practitioners over live-fire training in the 4,190-acre Wai'anae Coast valley, the Army has returned foot soldiers to Makua but left out the live fire.

A federal judge on Feb. 2 rejected an Army bid to resume live-fire training in Makua Military Reservation for soldiers heading to Iraq, saying the service must abide by federal environmental law requiring a comprehensive study of the impacts of more than 60 years of military training in the valley.

The Army agreed under a 2001 court settlement with Earthjustice and the community group Malama Makua to conduct the study in the valley, which is home to more than 40 endangered species and 100 archaeological features.

The study was supposed to be completed in October 2004.

Schofield spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly yesterday said he expects the report, called an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, to be done in the spring. Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said the Army had indicated March or April, but more recently said by August.

"I don't think it's at all realistic for them to get the EIS done before they deploy in August," Henkin said. That would mean no live-fire training in the valley before the Iraq deployment.

From a legal standpoint, Henkin said, he cannot argue with the Army's use of blank fire in Makua Valley.

"The most significant threats are posed by live fire because of its potential to cause wildfires ... As long as they are not going to fire any rounds, there's no conflict with the settlement agreement," Henkin said.

The Army in 1998 suspended training in the valley after munitions that fell outside designated areas started fires. Lawsuits filed by Earthjustice and Malama Makua led to the 2001 settlement.

The matter was further complicated by a "prescribed burn" in July 2003 that got out of control and blackened half the valley that some Hawaiians consider spiritually and culturally important.

In a draft Environmental Impact Statement released last July, the Army said it wanted to use the valley for air assaults, sniper training, convoy training, demolition training and up to 50 company-level training exercises involving tracer ammunition, tube-launched inert missiles, and 2.75-caliber rockets.

"Makua Military Reservation is vital to the training of our men and women," Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, said at the time. "And we need to ensure our soldiers are properly trained before we send them into combat."

Yesterday, Donnelly did not claim the inability to conduct live-fire training in Makua harmed soldiers preparing for Iraq.

"All the infantry units continue to train on their collective and individual tasks," he said. "Routinely, squads, platoons, companies, battalions do rehearsals, they do blank fire, and then they do live fire. That's the way we do business."

Up to 150 soldiers with Company A, part of Company D, and part of Headquarters and Headquarters Company of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry "Cacti," took part in yesterday's early morning exercise at Makua.

Two serials of four Black Hawk helicopters and a twin-rotor Chinook disgorged soldiers in combat gear as a command- and-control Black Hawk circled high overhead and two scout OH-58D Kiowa Warrior helicopters buzzed through the valley under breaking storm clouds.

Similar training is planned today, but it was unclear how much blank-fire training will be conducted in the future. Although it was the first return for ground troops in 18 months, the Army used the valley for helicopter training in October, it said. Between 90 and 100 Schofield helicopters will be deployed to Iraq, the Army said.

Donnelly said it's up to ground unit commanders to pick training locations, and the commander of the 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry, picked Makua.

Other training is being conducted at Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island. The 3rd Brigade, along with logistical and aviation support, will deploy to the National Training Center in California for training in late April or early May.

"Collectively, we're using all those resources to accomplish our mission," Donnelly said.

Henkin said Army officials told him as much convoy live-fire training as possible is being conducted at Pohakuloa. The Army yesterday did not provide information on how much of that training is being conducted there. Soldiers usually are transported to the Big Island by CH-47 Chinook helicopter.

Henkin said as part of the Environmental Impact Statement, the Army still needs to conduct prescribed burns in Makua, check for unexploded ordnance, and conduct archaeological assessments.

William Aila Jr., a Wai'anae resident, recently observed the close of the Makahiki season in Makua with about 50 other people. Aila, who opposes military training in the valley, said if the Army continues to train using blanks, "it will confirm what the community has said all along that the Army does not need to live-fire train in Makua in order to be qualified (for deployment)."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.