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Veterans Return Medals in Protest

May 29, 2000

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ About 30 U.S. veterans from the Puerto Rican island of Vieques turned in their medals on Memorial Day to protest a U.S. Navy bombing range.

``In protest and for peace in Vieques,″ the veterans said as they laid their ribbons and discharge papers in a wooden box during a ceremony at the Veterans’ Memorial in San Juan.

Organizers plan to send the box to President Clinton with a letter demanding that the Navy stop exercises on Vieques. On May 4, U.S. marshals arrested more than 200 demonstrators who had camped out on the bombing range and thwarted exercises for nearly a year.

Resentment over the U.S. Navy’s presence on Vieques boiled over in April 1999, when a jet dropped two 500-pound bombs off-target, killing a civilian security guard at the bombing range. Soon afterward, the Navy admitted that it had accidentally fired ammunition tipped with depleted uranium at the island in February 1999, a violation of federal laws.

``The moment I heard of them using depleted-uranium shells, that’s when I stopped feeling pride for having served,″ said Jose Soto, 62, a Vietnam veteran who served for 20 years in the Navy. He turned in 10 medals on Monday.

The Navy owns two-thirds of Vieques and has used the training ground to prepare for every major armed conflict since World War II. It says Vieques is the only site where its Atlantic fleet can practice shelling, bombing, amphibious landings, ship-to-ship warfare, air attacks and anti-submarine operations at the same time.

After the bombing accident, Clinton agreed to order the Navy out if the island’s 9,400 residents vote in a referendum to expel them.

Exercises are to continue without explosives until the vote, which is expected next year. Protesters want the Navy to withdraw immediately, saying they fear a new president may cancel Clinton’s agreement if a military emergency arises.

As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can serve in the U.S. armed forces and are subject to the military draft.

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