Time and place for ‘sound of freedom’

The News Tribune The News Tribune The News TribuneAugust 7, 2013 

AH-64 Apache helicopters came to JBLM in 2012 from Fort Hood, Texas.

STAFF FILE, 2012

There’s nothing new about noise complaints around Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Whenever the big guns fire, the calls come in from people who seem surprised that their military neighbors need to conduct training exercises that, given the nature of their work, can be noisy.

For the most part, though, South Sound residents are accustomed to — if not always happy about — the noise created by the Air Force’s C-17s flying overhead and the Army shooting off its Howitzers. Most of us accept the tradeoff: We put up with the “sound of freedom” because we know the important role the military plays in the local economy, community life and national security.

It’s a tradeoff that relies not only on the good will and tolerance of JBLM’s neighbors, but also on the military holding up its end of the bargain: by communicating with the civilian community — such as by announcing upcoming night training exercises — and by following the rules regarding flight paths and public input.

Even the Army admits it blew it last month when JBLM conducted low-flying, late-night helicopter exercises near Port Angeles — with no advance warning. Residents there say they felt “terrorized” by the thundering noise and bright lights that shone on the city. Base commander Col. H. Charles Hodges Jr. personally apologized at a City Council meeting for the lapse in communication.

That was a good move, but one might think that the lesson already would have been learned by what happened in the South Sound last year, when without warning JBLM helicopter crews suddenly started using different flight paths over civilian communities. Complaints poured in, most prominently from Lacey and Yelm.

Now JBLM officials say that they inadvertently broke federal law by failing to conduct an environmental impact study on the new routes and to solicit public input. They say they were rushing to accommodate a big expansion in the number of helicopters at JBLM with the arrival of the 16th Combat Aviation Brigade.

They should have anticipated that suddenly flying helicopters over areas that previously hadn’t been on a regular flight path might be the public relations problem it turned out to be. Having been given no opportunity to comment on the changes left many in the community feeling angry and mistrustful.

Why the community wasn’t notified is still a mystery, one that might be cleared up by public records that still have not been released to The News Tribune, which requested them in September. A JBLM official says the records are still under legal review.

As the civilian population inevitably grows — with many incoming residents having few if any ties to the military — it will be more incumbent than ever on JBLM officials to keep the base’s neighbors in the loop. At the same time, civilians should recognize that they co-exist with a longtime military presence — one that could go away if it’s unable to train our soldiers and airmen to perform their jobs as safely as possible.

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