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Military Booms Are Boon to Okla. Base's Neighbors

THE NATION

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

July 07, 2001|ESTHER SCHRADER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Said Major Gen. Toney Strickland, commanding officer at Ft. Sill: "At times the noise is bothersome. But it's proof positive that we are still conducting our mission here. And the people of Lawton derive comfort from that."

But neither a shared economy nor a shared history is always enough to maintain the difficult balance between the needs of the military and the needs of the communities that border its training facilities on 7.2 million acres of government lands throughout the U.S. and its territories.

Until about 20 years ago, the Pentagon was for the most part insensitive to local concerns around their training ranges. But now, with noise complaints, environmental concerns and fights over air quality and shared airspace mounting in many of the places the military fires its rockets, flies its supersonic planes, launches its missiles and tests its howitzers, the military is trying to work out compromises where it feels it can.

Pentagon planners are working with local government officials to encourage zoning restrictions that would place warehouses and factories, rather than private homes, near its testing sites. In others, they work out deals with cellular phone companies for use of the radio frequencies.

"In Ft. Sill, the range is connected to the base, so people understand the mission," said John Walsh, who is an analyst on training-range issues for the secretary of Defense, charged with coming up with a response to the growing hostility toward training in areas like Vieques.

"Where there's a facility there, there's instantly more interdependence between the community and the facility. One of the problems in Vieques was there just wasn't a lot of economic interdependence. We don't understand completely what went wrong there, but we know for some reason, it didn't work out."

In Lawton, commanding officers newly posted to Ft. Sill work at City Hall for several weeks in an internship designed to get them involved in issues of concern to the city. Officers from the base serve as ex officio members of the City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the school board. Local schoolchildren play Little League and soccer games on fields at the base. Townspeople are welcome at the base golf course. And soldiers posted at the base partner up with local businesses in volunteer projects and mentor children in schools.

"It's not something that occurred overnight. Someone didn't just flip a switch and all of a sudden that was just fine and dandy," said Nancy Elliott, a Ft. Sill spokeswoman. "There has been a lot of effort over the years to make it all work."

The work appears to have paid off.

From June 1, 2000 through last May 31, there were 328 days of live fire on Ft. Sill. In that year, the military dropped more than 7,650 bombs, launched 1,654 rockets and fired 101,122 artillery rounds. But in the same time, there have been fewer than 10 noise complaints, according to base officials.

Even on Oak Dale Avenue, where the lushly landscaped yards and swimming pools of opulent houses back right up to the base, the Army does not appear to have made enemies.

"I don't notice it that much," said Edward Legako, a pediatrician who lives with his wife and three children in a richly decorated home just yards from where cannons are sometimes tested on the base.

"Frankly, I bought the place partly because I knew there could be no development behind me. People from out of town will come in and say, 'What's that? It sounds like a bomb,' but I don't even notice it. At 6 a.m., I might feel things rattling a little bit, but I guess it's like the freeway roar to people in L.A. I roll over and go right back to sleep."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

One Year of Range Activity

From June 1, 2000 through May 31, 2001. Source: Ft. Sill.

*

Days of live fire (including small arms): 328

Days of artillery fire: 298

Days range is used in bombing: 246

Total practice bombs dropped: 7,652

*

Noise Complaints

1999: 8

2000: 4

2001 (to daate): 3

Source: Ft. Sill

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