Army supporters exceed critics
Residents express opinions on plans to transfer thousands of soldiers off Oahu
“The military is our ohana,” said Karen Leilani Paty, a teacher at Wahiawa Middle School, during the Army community listening session held at Leilehua High School on Wednesday evening.
A standing-room-only crowd of mostly Army supporters but also some detractors turned out Wednesday in Wahiawa for the second of two “listening” sessions as the service weighs big troop cuts around the country, including in Hawaii.
The session started at 6:30 p.m. in the Leilehua High School cafeteria, with many expressing the strategic importance Hawaii represents as a forward U.S. base in the Pacific.
“To draw down the 25th Infantry Division does not make military sense,” said the first speaker, Walter Benavitz, vice president of the Wahiawa Community and Business Association.
“China is flexing its muscles in the Pacific to the chagrin of our allies. … Meanwhile, we are cutting back our military capability.”
Benavitz, a retired Navy commander who said his family came to Hawaii from the Portuguese Azores in 1883, said the “military is not the culprit here,” with sequestration forcing unwanted cuts.
But Hawaii’s conflicted history, including the 1898 annexation by the United States and later statehood, also was evident.
Lancelot Haili Lincoln, who flew a Hawaii state flag upside down as a sign of distress and said he is a descendant of King Kamehameha 1, pointed to 138,000 anti-annexation signatures collected from 1897 to 1898 “to tell you to get out of our Islands.”
Army supporters outnumbered critics about 10 to 1 in the session in pro-Army Wahiawa, which drew more than 400 people.
A Wahiawa resident said the Army has been integrated into the community a long time, participating in parades and recycling. She said many businesses in Wahiawa would close if the Army downsized significantly.
“I really appreciate all that the Army has done,” she said.
Another Wahiawa resident said claims that affordable housing would be available with Army downsizing are “pie in the sky,” while the reality of military downsizing can be seen in the “empty shell” that is now the shuttered Barbers Point Naval Air Station.
One young woman said she was in favor of downsizing, in part because Oahu has finite resources of food, water, electricity and homes, but also too much traffic congestion.
“So the prospect of having 50,000 fewer people on this island is exciting and a rare opportunity you must realize,” she said.
A man who identified himself only by the name Lopaka, and referred to himself as a Hawaiian national, said he supported downsizing “as a great first step in de-occupying the Hawaiian Islands.”
But Leon C. Hamili said his father was native Hawaiian and a staff sergeant in the Army.
“There are many Hawaiians out here who fully support military service and the Department of Defense being here in Hawaii – and I am one of those,” he said.
Army headquarters is considering a postwar reduction in its active-duty strength from a current 495,000 to 510,000 soldiers to 440,000 or 450,000 – or an even lower 420,000, if sequestration budget cuts remain in effect in fiscal 2016.
The biggest possible cut set out by the Army for Hawaii would be the loss of 16,000 soldiers and civilian workers from Schofield Barracks – the vast majority of soldiers there — and about 3,800 from Fort Shafter.
The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, which organized a “Keep Hawaii’s Heroes” campaign, said the loss of the soldiers, civilians and 30,000 family members would negatively impact Honolulu’s economy by $1.35 billion.
Wahiawa, Waialua, Schofield, Mililani and Kunia would lose 38 percent of their populations and 20,000 jobs would be affected, the chamber said.
The Army is considering downsizing at 30 installations nationwide. Any cuts that occur as a result of the analysis won’t be announced until the summer or fall, the Army said.
The Chamber of Commerce said it exceeded its target of collecting 40,000 signatures in support of the Army in Hawaii.
President and CEO Sherry Menor-McNamara noted in a release Wednesday that the Army is conducting similar listening sessions at other installations around the country where cuts could occur.
“We must continue to show our support to the military. The reality is, cuts will be made. The question is, to what extent,” she said.
“A large, very vocal group in opposition” to the Army presence in Hawaii attended Tuesday’s listening session at the Hale Koa Hotel, Menor-McNamara noted.
“However, we know from a Hawaii sentiment survey conducted in fall 2013, 77 percent of voters support military training exercises and 92 percent believe the military’s presence is important to our economy,” she said.
The Oahu Council for Army Downsizing has said it “does not consider the bulk of the Army’s forces on Oahu to be strategically located since these forces do not have readily available airlift or sea lift.”
The group maintains the Army downsizing provides a “once in a century opportunity” to return to the state Schofield, Wheeler Army Airfield, Makua Valley, Dillingham Military Reservation and Kolekole Pass.
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