By Cris Dosev
It was another hot, humid day at Quantico in the summer of 1984, nine months after the Beirut Barracks bombing that killed 241 Marines.
Our group of 180 new Marine Corps lieutenants had just completed a brisk three-mile forced march to the rifle range and were preparing for another day of training.
But before taking our range positions, we sat on some nearby bleachers awaiting verbal instruction.
That was when a salty Gunnery Sergeant gave us a charge I’ve never forgotten.
“Gentleman,” he began, “today you sit here the newest members of this august big green gun club, but from your ranks will come the future leaders and defenders of our great nation.
“Today you find yourself training here at Quantico. Tomorrow, it could be Camp Pendleton or Camp Lejeune or Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Cherry Point or Beaufort.
“But in that tomorrow, you may find that due to local influences and pressures, few of which pertain to the requirements and necessity to prepare military forces for war, those training areas will become more restricted; if not altogether taken from you – those responsible for the national defense.
“Therefore,” Gunny directed us, “you must be the sentinels. Ensure that your Marines and future Marines have at their disposal training installations and areas to ensure nothing less than victory in war.”
From that class of young officers, thanks in no small part to those training staff, rose the current Commandant of the Marine Corps and two active-duty general officers.
I was also privileged to be sitting among those raw lieutenants. And today, I find myself again obligated to take up that charge Gunny assigned us over 30 years ago.
Eglin Air Force Base is home to countless flight training operations and weapons and munitions testing; including the MOAB ordinance recently dropped on ISIS forces in Afghanistan; which are key to our national defense.
Now, those critical training activities are under threat from development; the crux of which is a proposed Navarre Pass next to Eglin.
This project would almost certainly benefit a select few, at the expense of so many more Americans who depend on Eglin’s critical training capabilities, not to mention its local economic influence.
In 2001, with the loss of the Vieques bombing range in Puerto Rico, fleet training was transferred to locations in central Florida.
Carrier air wings historically conducted exercises to prepare for overseas deployment at Vieques, before it and the associated Naval Air Station Roosevelt Roads in Puerto Rico were closed, eliminating a critical training installation.
Those closures were the direct result of development encroachment and associated concerns about local military activities.
During my time in the Marine aviation attack community, no matter where training was conducted; noise concerns, range encroachment issues, objections to military activity, and EPA standards that reached absurd levels of compliance were ever-present challenges to the needs and requirements of key operations.
Rarely will you find residents of any community who don’t support a strong military and national defense. But at the same time, most people prefer any inconvenience be in somebody else’s backyard.
Eglin’s vast reserve allows the best of both worlds, by cushioning critical operations with an undeveloped perimeter that provides training space without encroaching on community convenience.
A Navarre Pass, which Congressman Matt Gaetz is peddling despite years of Eglin objection, threatens to upset that balance.
It appears Congressman Gaetz failed to foresee any potential conflict with military operations when he piggybacked the Pass onto a bill to address island leasehold issues.
Maybe Mr. Gaetz, or his donors, were distracted by the prospect of BP settlement millions slated to be funneled through Triumph Gulf Coast’s political appointee Board for nebulous “economic development” handouts.
Now, he’s suddenly withdrawn that original bill, citing the North Korea standoff. But I submit that Mr. Gaetz backed down because local area commanders expressed strong objections to the proposal, rather than any sham Korea concerns.
Why did the military have to reiterate what have been longstanding, basic objections to the encroachment a Pass would bring?
Shouldn’t that have occurred to Congressman Gaetz, who grew up near Eglin? Instead, our Congressman suggests that Eglin can shuffle training facilities and practice sites to make room for Pass development.
Recently, Congressman Gaetz also said that a future BRAC is inevitable.
So, after watching the Panhandle community fight and scrape to maintain its military presence and its influence in Washington, D.C. for decades, Mr. Gaetz thinks the Navarre Pass is a great way to usher in future BRAC negotiations?
I wonder how Mr. Gaetz imagines the military will view the prospect of boaters, swimmers and Florabama-like development massing off Eglin test grounds all summer?
The Seventh Special Forces Group recently transferred to Eglin; not because they were hoping to be closer to the Okaloosa Aquatics Center, but for proximity to some of the best training areas that our country could provide those charged with our nation’s defense.
I haven’t even touched on the extensive weapons development and testing that occurs at the Eglin military complex. Including ISIS’ MOAB. How will that play out with a string of hotels and condos built up next door?
These are not ephemeral concerns. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.
Are we prepared to pay it? Are Mr. Gaetz and his campaign donors?
Cris Dosev, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, served as an Intruder bombardier/navigator during Desert Storm. Dosev ran for the District 1 Congressional seat as a Republican in 2016. He owns and operates a small business, and describes himself as a family-man, Gator, grateful resident of Pensacola and the Northwest Florida Panhandle, and humble Christian devoted to God, country, and family.