Respect for base goes both ways

August 13, 2013 

The rapid recent growth of Joint Base Lewis-McChord has created challenges for residents of surrounding communities ranging from simply annoying (traffic congestion) to serious social problems (an uptick in crime following more than a decade of live-battle deployments).

Not least among those troubles has been the flying of low-altitude and illegal helicopter training routes over unaware, populated areas.

When the federal government established Camp Lewis 93 years ago, soldiers and officers must have felt they had landed in the middle of a Northwest rain forest.

The city of Tacoma in 1917 had a population of fewer than 50,000. Olympia was smaller still and farther away from the camp’s main gate. Lacey didn’t incorporate until 1966. Lakewood in 1996.

Civilian development today has encircled Joint Base Lewis-McChord, placing it smack in the middle of a large urban Olympia-Tacoma area on the busy Interstate 5 corridor. That development over nine decades has occurred in large part because JBLM has been such an important regional economic engine.

It’s a symbiotic relationship that requires special considerations from both the general public and the military.

The military has admitted it broke trust with its civilian neighbors in two ways: It failed to communicate that low-flying, late-night flights would occur and was unaware the flights were violating federal environmental laws.

Residents rightly complained, and some felt genuinely terrorized. The base had an obvious obligation to inform people.

It’s curious how an organization steeped in protocol missed that common-sense step.

Perhaps we could have avoided this nasty dispute if JBLM had followed the law and conducted an environmental impact study on the proposed training routes for the incoming helicopter brigade, which would have included public meetings and feedback.

The base commander’s admission of fault and his apology should assuage the community’s concerns. Civilian residents — most of whom took up residence long after 1917 — must also realize they chose to live next to one of the largest military installations in the United States.

That comes with an obligation, not for deference but for tolerance.

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