PERSPECTIVES: Citizens: Collateral damage in the war on terror

Posted 3/13/18

The need for adequate training of our military personnel is obvious, and most people recognize and appreciate the service and sacrifice of generations of men and women in uniform. But it’s also …

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PERSPECTIVES: Citizens: Collateral damage in the war on terror


The need for adequate training of our military personnel is obvious, and most people recognize and appreciate the service and sacrifice of generations of men and women in uniform. But it’s also good citizenship to point out when those training activities conflict with environmental laws and public health and safety.

For decades Naval Air Station Whidbey Island has been a reasonable neighbor, but not since the 160 Growler jets arrived. Flights of all Navy aircraft will increase 47 percent, to 130,000. Of those, Growler flights will number 73,900; they are already conducting electronic warfare training 260 days per year, 8-16 hours per day. There will be up to 35,500 touch-and-go operations on a runway in a residential neighborhood that’s 3,000 feet too short for safety.

When those student pilots are conducting “field carrier landing practice,” you can hear the roar 20 miles away. Serious mechanical problems with Growlers have made the news recently. A hospital and two schools sit near the end of that short runway. What could go wrong?

Besides the hearing loss that a few seconds of Growler noise can inflict, impacts include sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease and impairment of cognitive function in children. The Navy has never measured the noise; it uses an outdated modeling software called NoiseMap, which the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) labeled inadequate for the low-frequency signature of Growlers; in fact, SERDP said it may not produce “legally defensible assessments.”


The Navy admitted in an environmental impact statement (EIS) that it cannot guarantee our region’s air quality will meet federal standards. One hour of Growler flight emits 23 percent more carbon dioxide than a Washington resident emits in an entire year. With the Navy’s EIS analyzing only the exhaust emissions from takeoffs and landings but not flight operations, it’s hard to predict impacts. So, I did some math: The Navy’s increased air traffic will produce as much CO2 as the combined average annual emissions of 2.7 coal-fired power plants.

The Navy owns 46 miles of shoreline and 151,975 acres of land here, but they want to conduct “realistic” combat training along 265 miles of western Puget Sound shoreline, using private lands and state parks. Training includes mock gun battles at Fort Worden and Fort Flagler, and in Port Ludlow, among 65-plus sites. Navy officials confirmed that civilians will be proxies for the enemy. At an open house, these officials told shocked listeners that they “… will not be shown boundaries or shut out when the Navy is conducting an exercise, so you may wander unawares into a secret military exercise, uninformed that by doing so, you are a participant.” Another added, “The point is to be able to watch and track whoever comes through, you, the public, ‘the enemy,’ without your awareness, whether you’re walking, fishing, enjoying nature or otherwise going about your business.” Also: Gunfire will supposedly be distinguishable by civilians as the sound of air rifles, not real weapons.


The dismal regularity of school shootings and the fact that so many shooters wear military-style clothing make the sight of, or even the thought of, encountering armed combatants who may appear unexpectedly, or who may be hiding in state parks or on private land adjacent to properties that have children and pets, a big concern. It’s not just about physical safety but also psychological effects, especially on children.

And what happens if a civilian who is armed encounters an exercise and initiates gunfire with real bullets? The Navy has been silent about this possibility, and also this: In North Carolina, a sheriff’s deputy shot two trainees during Operation Robin Sage, killing one. A lawsuit ended with the community forfeiting $750,000 in damages.

The Navy’s environmental assessment says 84 personnel will train annually, but Navy officials later said it’s 504. An email from the governor’s office worried about the possibility of 2,000.

Physical risks aside, trainees will use aerial and surface drones carrying “payloads” of technical equipment with data-capture and recording capability.

Fourth Amendment concerns about random electronic surveillance of people who are not the subject of a warrant or not suspected of terrorism have not been addressed. The Navy has dismissed any chilling effects on enjoyment of our wonderful state park system and potential declines in private property values near where combat training is occurring. Federal and state laws as well as zoning restrictions that conflict with using state parks and private lands for military training have not been addressed. Normalizing military combat training in our communities sets a dangerous precedent.

A former naval officer whom the Navy hires for outreach told a live radio audience on KSER 90.7 and KXIR 88.9 in Everett on June 19, 2015, “The citizens of the area are collateral damage in the war on terror.” As bad as that sounds, he wasn’t exaggerating.

Karen Sullivan is a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who cofounded the West Coast Action Alliance in response to recent expansions of military activities on public lands and in civilian communities. See