Cover Story

[Right], Staff Sgt. Tomas Aguilera removes a rope at Pyramid Rock Beach, April 24, while participating in MCB Hawaii’s Malama Ka Aina.
Image: Kristen Wong

Fortress Oahu

With roots planted in the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and a presence that extends through the entire archipelago, the military’s influence in Hawaii is surpassed only by tourism.


The military controls some 236,000 acres throughout the state, including 25 percent of the land mass of Oahu, and thousands of square miles of surrounding airspace and sea. Yet as a branch of the federal government, the Department of Defense (DoD) operates in the Islands with little public oversight and virtual impunity, except when national environmental laws come into play.

Notwithstanding, it’s burned up native forests, dumped hazardous materials into the ocean and killed protected native species. It’s rendered land unusable with its unexploded ordinance, disrupted neighborhoods with its noise, dropped nearly every bomb known to man on the island of Kahoolawe. It’s unearthed ancient burials, launched rockets from sacred dunes, shut off public access mauka and makai. And in the course of a century, it’s transformed Waimomi, once the food basket for Oahu, into Pearl Harbor, a giant Superfund complex comprising at least 749 contaminated sites.

So why do our people, and politicians, allow the militarly to stay, aside from the fact that it is well-armed and deeply entrenched here?

Money is the answer most often given. DoD expenditures in Hawaii totaled some $6.5 billion in 2009 — about 9 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.

“Yes, some people get paid, but who’s paying the price of that?” counters Kyle Kajihiro of Hawaii Peace and Justice, a non-profit organization. “There are losers in this, and unfortunately, it’s often native people,” he adds, citing damage to ecology and cultural sites, and Hawaii’s being perceived as “am accessory to the militarization that extends from our shores.”

About 65 percent of the military spending, or $4.2 billion, covers the salaries of 48,000 active duty personnel, 18,000 DoD civilian workers and 9,000 National Guard and Reserve members, as well as the benefits of 16,088 retirees.

The work tends to pay well, averaging $74,000 per year for military employees and $69,800 for DoD civilians, compared to an annual median income of $40,000 for Hawaii residents, according to a RAND National Defense Research Institute study commissioned last year by the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs and Chamber of Commerce.

The remaining $2.3 billion in federal defense spending goes to procurements, which encompass everything from basic supplies to multi-million-dollar construction contracts. But while 94 percent of that total goes to Oahu, only 58 percent of it went to companies with a Hawaii address. But RAND estimates that $6.5 billion in defense expenditures could generate as much as $12.2 billion, and create an additional 26,000 jobs, as it moves through the local economy.

Another plus: military spending is relatively consistent, according to Leroy Laney, a Hawaiii Pacific University professor of economics and finance.

And when you have a powerful representative in Washington, namely Sen. Daniel Inouye, the military’s presence can be leveraged to secure funding for other projects, particularly infrastructure. “You certainly cannot discount the role [Inouye] has played in bringing money to the state,” Laney says, noting that one of the primary justifications for the federal money that financed the H-3 freeway was moving marines from windward Oahu to Pearl Harbor. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Inouye was instrumental in securing some $490 million for Hawaii this year to finance initiatives ranging from military construction and highway projects to native Hawaiian healthcare and disaster preparedness.“Tourism will slow in its rate of growth, but the military will remain fairly stable. It is an infusion of money from the outside.”

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin views that “infusion” a little differently. “As for the money they’re spending in the state, it’s our money, it’s federal tax dollars. It’s not like they’re some third party that is investing in our community.”

The state has also sweetened the pot to keep the military happy, such as exempting the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard from the general excise tax — although this perk was recently suspended for several years as lawmakers scrambled to make up the budget shortfall.

Furthermore, Henkin says, “the nature of the enterprise is one that brings lots of temporary residents through who strain our infrastructure, compete for housing, and often have dependents who compete for civilian jobs. It’s not like a private company coming in and hiring local workers.”

Indeed, nearly two-thirds of the positions attributed to the military are held by its own personnel, who otherwise wouldn’t be in the Islands. And some 25,000 military spouses work full or part-time, according to the RAND study. Still, as Laney points out, “the troops that are garrisoned here spend money like everyone else, on housing, retail spending, entertainment.” The RAND study also showed that active duty personal, DoD civilian employees and reservists paid some $113 million in state taxes and spent $72 million on local healthcare providers between 2007-09 .

“If we suddenly took the military out of the economy, obviously Central Oahu would be hurt, but also the windward side,” Laney says. Marine Corps Base Hawaii, with 1,400 non-military workers, is the largest civilian employer on the windward side of Oahu, according to Lt. Diann M. Olson, the base’s media officer.

When it comes to creating jobs, however, a recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst determined that defense expenditures are an inefficient way to do it. The study found that $1 billion in government spending creates 11,200 jobs in the defense industry, compared to 16,800 jobs in clean energy, 17,200 in healthcare and 26,700 in the education sector.

“The San Francisco Bay Area created more jobs per acre when its [military] bases closed,” Kajihiro says. “Unfortunately, our leaders in Hawaii never look at how inefficient military spending is.”

That’s because money is only one factor in the equation.

“Hawaii is blessed, or cursed if you will, by our geography,” Kajihiro says. “We’re seen as a critical strategic location for U.S. imperialistic interests. We’re a place they’ll fight very hard to hold on to, unfortunately.”

With President Obama talking about shifting America’s focus away from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, all signs point to an expanding military presence in Hawaii. The Marine Corps recently announced plans to base Osprey aircraft and Cobra and Huey attack/utility helicopters at Kaneohe starting this year, a move that would add some 2,100 persons to that facility and greatly increase noise from flyovers and training exercises. Inouye secured funding to base F-22 Raptor fighter jets at Hickham Air Force Base and build a new Coast Guard command and control center on Sand Island.

In February, the Senator announced his goal of bringing an interisland ferry back to Hawaii, by securing DoD funding to help support a state-run operation. The Navy recently purchased both vessels built for Hawaii Superferry (and currently stationed elsehwere) after the company went bankrupt. Elsewhere in the Islands, the Big Island’s Pohakuloa facility is poised to become the Army’s training center for the Pacific, And with Guam resistant to accepting the marines due to be relocated from Okinawa, it’s likely some will be transferred here: Gov. Abercrombie has floated the idea of building military housing for them in West Hawaii.

Despite the planned buildup, Kajihiro thinks Hawaii will see less military money “in a post-Inouye situation.” Though the Senator has announced his plans to run for a tenth term in 2016, it is questionable whether the 87-year-old will be able to fulfill that dream. His spokesman, Peter Boylan, did not respond to questions on how the Islands would fare economically without the clout of the Senate’s most senior member.

“Let’s start looking at alternatives now,” Kajihiro urges. “What is a different economic model for our islands, one that is more sustainable?”

Such a review also demands a closer look at tourism, which serves to “sugar-coat the violence and repressive history” of militarism in the Pacific region, Kajihiro says. But it’s not easy, he adds, to get folks talking about economic alternatives, or scrutinizing the true costs of the military’s presence, including its occupation of former kingdom lands that remain key to Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination efforts.

“Whenever people raise these issues about the military impacts, they’re very quickly tainted as anti-military or anti-American, but it’s important to do an objective analysis,” Henkin says.

Kajihiro concurs that he would like to see a “freer climate to speak. I think there’s too much deference to the military by the business and political leadership, even among progressives, because so much funding comes attached. It makes it hard to have an honest discussion with this elephant in the room.”

Eco Military

From bombing Kahoolawe and strafing Kaula rock to dumping chemical munitions in the sea and testing weapons containing depleted uranium, all branches of the U.S. armed services have trod heavily on Hawaii’s fragile tropical environment. “It’s been an ecological disaster,” says Kyle Kajihiro of Hawaii Peace and Justice. While Earthjustice attorney David Henkin doesn’t dispute that the military’s presence bolsters the local economy, he questions whether it’s “the highest and best use of the limited land we have. If you’re using it to blow it up, you can’t use it for other purposes.”

But lawsuits filed by Earthjustice have forced the Army to halt live fire training exercises at Makua and prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before basing the Stryker Brigade in the Islands. And in recent years, prodded by court orders and community activism, the Department of Defense has begun cleaning up its act. “It took over a decade to get the Army to admit training on the Big Island was an alternative to live fire training at Makua, and then another two years for them to say it was probably a better idea,” Henkin notes. At MCBH, for example, the Marines use amphibious vehicles to plow under invasive plants that choke wetlands and prevent them from retaining and filtering storm water, says Dr. Diane Drigot. “The endangered water birds get better habitat, erosion is controlled, which results in better water quality, and the marines get the side benefit of training. There’s no way, without gobs of money, that you could do the same thing with a private contractor,” Drigot adds.

Drigot says MCBH has been commended by the Outdoor Circle for its sustainable landscaping, and by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA for its environmental stewardship. MCBH also hosts the Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps and visiting scholars, and partners with local businesses and groups, including the Sierra Club, on service projects. The Marine Corps is also starting to clean up decades-old ordnance from Waikane Valley, so the public may once again be able to use the area, Henkin says, adding, “That came through years of community opposition and pressure.”

The Army, meanwhile, “manages more than 100 threatened and endangered species in Hawaii–basically one-third [of te total] and more endangered species than any other federal agency in Hawaii,” Army Garrison-Hawaii spokeswoman Stefanie Gardin wrote in an email. “The Army manages, and spends an average of $11 million per year doing so. The Cultural Resources program manages more than 1,100 archaeological sites on Oahu and the Big Island, spending between $3-5 million per year.”

As part of that effort, the Army has also surveyed rare plants and animal populations, inventoried cultural sites, built fences to keep goats, pigs and sheep out of sensitive areas, planted native species, participated in a number of research projects and reared endangered tree snails for reintroduction into the wild, Gardin wrote.

“The military is doing restoration and endangered species work, and it’s good work, especially on Oahu,” says Marjorie Ziegler, director of Conservation Council for Hawaii. “But it’s all required as mitigation for the destruction the military has caused. It’s hard to reconstruct a forest or bring back a species that’s on the brink. I don’t think it can ever make up for the damage.”

While some progress has been made,it’s not easy for citizens to take on the military. Ziegler says. “It does pretty much what it wants because people just don’t challenge it,” she says. “Probably more people would sue to challenge its destructive actions in the Islands, but there are only so many attorneys who can do these cases.”

Meanwhile, the danger of new damage remains. Ziegler worries about the prospect of increased military traffic from Guam because it heightens the likelihood that the bird-killing brown tree snake could end up here. And some Big Island residents fear their health could be harmed by depleted uranium particles that may become airborne during live fire training at Pohakuloa. –J.C.

Military volunteers

While the big picture many be complicated, at the community level many service members are good neighbors. “Marine Corps Hawaii prides itself in its continuous effort to support the local community,” writes Lt. Diann M. Olson, in an email. “Throughout the year marines and sailors individually volunteer for countless hours supporting charities and other nonprofit organizations across the island.” Individual marines spent more than 85,000 hours in volunteer service last year. .

Soldiers and their families are also active, donating at least 115,274 community service hours in 2011, says Stefanie Gardin, Army Garrison-Hawaii spokeswoman. They’ve participated in beach, reef and stream cleanups, supported Cub Scouts and Special Olympics, and assisted community events like the Great Aloha Run and Wahiawa Pineapple Festival. They volunteered another 6,682 hours at 50 local schools, tutoring and helping to repair and beautify campuses.

Personnel at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kaua’i coach youth sports, contribute to the food bank and support the Adopt-A-School program.

In conclusion, “Numbers tell only part of the story,” says Dr. Diane Drigot, senior natural resources management specialist for MCBH. “The community is also reaching out to us and helping with some of our projects, which is a sign we’re being accepted and contributing to a greater good.”