Decades of US naval drills on a Puerto Rican island may have inflicted untold collateral damage. Armed forces everywhere should learn the lesson.
Militaries around the world train regularly to ensure troops stay fit for combat, but for one army at least, the drills have become deadlier than the real deal. Between 2006 and 2020, accidents accounted for about 32 percent, or 5,605, of military deaths in the United States Armed Forces, twice the number killed in action. Elsewhere in the world, military training mishaps likewise make the headlines whenever they happen.
While the toll war games exacts on soldiers is well-documented and often well-publicised, less understood is their impact on people who live near military bases and training grounds. Given that armed forces continue to hold training exercises around the world, we would benefit from a better understanding of the potential impact of these practices on the physical and mental health on nearby populations.
My latest paper, “Military training exercises, pollution, and their consequences for health”, co-authored with Gustavo Bobonis and Leonardo Tovar, studies the effect of US Navy drills on the health of babies born in the Puerto Rican territory of Vieques. Bombing activity there led to short-term increases in water pollution, which has been linked to increased frequency of miscarriages and congenital anomalies. We found that the sudden end of bombing drills in July 2000 coincided with a 56 to 79 percent decrease in the incidence of congenital anomalies.
Bombing and babies
For the 60 years until 2001, Vieques, a tiny island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, hosted a range of US Navy exercises including ship-to-shore gunfire, air-to-ground bombing by naval aircraft, and Marine amphibious landing. Military training and operations were conducted in the eastern end of Vieques, while the western end was used to store munitions. The island’s population of about 9,300 (as of 2010) live in the centre.