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Military Booms Are Boon to Okla. Base's Neighbors

Training: In contrast to protests over Vieques base, residents near Ft. Sill believe clamor of artillery fire is 'the sound of freedom.'


LAWTON, Okla. — To the people of Vieques, Puerto Rico, the boom-boom-boom of the U.S. military using their island for target practice is the sound of imperialism. But in this prairie city, where the Army has for decades tested its live guns, bombs, missiles and rockets on a sprawling base just two miles from City Hall, it is the sound of cash registers ringing.

Residents of this deeply conservative city, proud of their link to the military training center, have another name for it. They call it "the sound of freedom."

In Lawton, the din from Ft. Sill, the army's premier artillery training center, regularly shatters windows, glasses and vases, and rocks pictures off kilter. Training accidents have killed nine soldiers since 1989 and injured more than two dozen others. On certain days, when the temperature and humidity are right, the odor of cordite, the powder component in artillery rounds, wafts across the town. Bombs send frightened children scurrying down to storm shelters in the middle of the night.

But in this wind-whipped place in the heart of tornado country, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn't welcome the disruption.

The clamor of artillery means jobs. The jobs mean prosperity. And Ft. Sill, a military base founded as a cavalry outpost during the Indian Wars, means something less tangible but no less critical to the people of Lawton: an identity, a mission, a reason to be proud of where they live.

In an era when a growing number of communities are fighting the military's presence as an unwelcome disruption to their quality of life, the Pentagon is examining places like Lawton to understand what has made the chemistry work.

"We do live with the boom-boom-boom of artillery fire 24 hours a day, but it's very interesting about living here, you just don't hear it anymore," said Leo Baxter, who retired as commanding general at Ft. Sill in 1989 and is now a Lawton banker. "That's the price you pay when you live in a community like this. To us, it is oddly comforting. It's the sound of a healthy economy and a viable place to live."

Lawton is no Vieques, people here would be the first to say. The Puerto Rican island, owned in large part by the U.S. Navy, has been the focus of intense protests since 1999, when a civilian guard was accidentally killed during a bombing exercise. This month, after 60 years as a simulated war zone in the training of thousands of sailors in the Atlantic Fleet, the Navy announced it will pull out of Vieques in 2003.

The 9,000 people on Vieques have almost no link to the Navy, which trains on the two-thirds of the island it owns, about nine miles from the populated part of the island. Because the Navy's two installations on Vieques are largely training facilities, where personnel are brought in for short, intensive exercises and then depart, they never gave rise to the kind of community life and businesses catering to the military that usually spring up around a U.S. base. Instead, in an area where tourism dollars are often the only dollars, the constant bombing of Vieques hindered the hotel and restaurant development that could have bettered the lives of residents.

The lives of the people of Lawton, by contrast, could not be more deeply intertwined with the presence of Ft. Sill. The fort was established in 1869, 32 years before the city of Lawton was incorporated. The city was named after Army Gen. Henry W. Lawton, who pursued and captured the Apache chief Geronimo in 1886. Geronimo is buried at Ft. Sill.

In the city of about 100,000 about an hour and a half southwest of Oklahoma City, more than 21,000 people work at the base. Of 17,600 students of Lawton schools, 43% are children of military or other federal workers connected with the base. The school system gets $3.4 million a year in federal aid to offset the presence of the base in the district.

All told, Ft. Sill officials estimate the base pumped $972 million into the Lawton economy last year.

There is another factor at play here too: a rooted, middle-America brand of patriotism and support for the military and its mission. More than 10% of Lawton's residents are military retirees. The city's voters are overwhelmingly Republican and overwhelmingly pro-military.

Lawton, deep in a state whose license plates proclaim you are in the heart of "Native America," is the sort of place where generals passing through are given the keys to the city. It is the sort of place where soldier dances draw local girls. It is the sort of place where you are safe leaving your car and house doors unlocked but where a certainty pervades that threats from America's enemies lurk unseen.

"When I hear those guns out there popping, that's the sound of freedom ringing in my ears," said Lawton Mayor Cecil Powell. "That's the freedom bells ringing. Those are the guns that are going to be fired if we have to defend the United States of America."

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