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War or peace, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station vital

As bombs fell on Bagdad last Thursday on day two of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station commanding officer Capt. Stephen Black gave his annual State of the Station address to the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce. He opened with the understatement of the year: “We’ve been a little busy lately.”

Black said it was purely coincidental that his luncheon address at the CPO Club came at the same time as the long-anticipated war with Iraq. His presentation did not focus on the role the naval air station is playing in the war, but rather on the good deeds the base does on a daily basis.

“We live and work with you,” he told the assembled group of Oak Harbor business people.

With employment, construction and contracts, $434 million a year flows between the base and the community.

In outlining the base’s involvement in the community Black cited the airshow, school volunteer programs and salmon habitat restoration efforts. However, because of the intense time commitment involved in putting on the airshow, there will not be one this year. An airshow in 2004 depends on the defense budget, Black said.

With war costs looming, “The Department of Defense is cutting on the shaft of the spear,” Black said.

Black called the Navy a good steward of the environment, and said the base is in the final phase of Superfund cleanup. This phase includes wastewater upgrades and marsh restoration. While Garry oaks are beleaguered in other parts of the island, there are 50 to 70 healthy ones on base.

There is also a thriving bird population on the sprawling compound. So thriving in fact that the base has instituted a program called BASH — Bird Airstrike Hazard — to protect both air traffic and the birds.

The base has won numerous environmental awards, including the 2002 White House Closing the Circle award.

The base has seen ongoing construction in the last year. At the Seaplane Base, Black said the commissary will be 50 percent larger when expansion is completed, and they are getting rid of the “train wreck” of trailers used for temporary housing at the Seaplane Base. The base now has 1,552 housing units, and 200 new Victory Park townhouses have been completed.

At the base the aircrew water survival facility, what Black called the “torture chamber,” is nearing completion, and a new air control tower, improved entry point controls and flight line security are planned.

In addition to all the expansion plans, Black discussed the prospect of base closure, with the next round scheduled for 2005. There has been a lot of speculation that if the aging EA-6B Prowlers are phased out, the Whidbey base would be obsolete.

Not so, said Black. Since the primary role of the replacement EA-18G, which has been dubbed “Growler,” is the same as the Prowler, Black felt the base was still a good fit.

“We have the infrastructure, the training and the crews to base them here,” he said.

In addition, the Department of Defense may make a decision regarding the fate of the also-aging P-3 Patrol and Reconnaissance planes by this fall.

In spite of the impending changes, Black was optimistic about the future of the base.

“I think we will fare well,” he said.

Touching on the war with Iraq, and post Sept. 11 procedures, Black said open access to the base is a thing of the past. He reassured the group that limited access, including sandbagged bunkers with sharpshooters at every gate, was not cause for alarm.

“We’re just changing the security configuration of the base,” he said. Personnel on the base are charged with safeguarding two bases consisting of 7,000 acres, 10,000 people and 20 miles of shoreline.

Black commended base security forces for the job they are doing, working long hours, many while standing in the rain.

In closing, Black said NAS Whidbey is fundamental to Operation Enduring Freedom, with most of the base forward deployed. To date eight of the 14 Prowler squadrons and three VQ-1 crews are gone.

He then played a short Department of Defense video which he warned would induce tears.

The video portrayed a unified fighting force of one team with one fight. Black told the group, “Thank you for being the wind beneath our wings.”

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