• Editor’s Note: The following guest commentary was written by Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, a lifelong Oak Harbor resident.
By JILL JOHNSON
OLF Coupeville provides critical training to ensure our pilots are mission ready. That means that they need to practice in an environment that most closely simulates the experience they have on an aircraft carrier, and that is exactly what the OLF offers.
We can all agree that planes are loud. Those who do not live directly in a touch-and-go pattern should acknowledge that these types of practices come with a different intensity than the fly-overs most of us experience on a daily basis. But we are also talking about homeowners who willingly bought property adjacent to an active airfield.
I believe that a majority of those asking for help are sincere. They want to be good neighbors, want the Navy to stay, and want to know what, if anything, can be done to improve their quality of life.
There are some who say that the Navy hasn’t listened, that it hasn’t acknowledged their concerns. Yet when asked for more predictable flight times, the Navy began publishing them in the newspaper and held meetings to try to better understand community concerns. The Navy was listening and responding, but for some no answer would be acceptable, no mitigation would be enough, and so they put up signs warning about the danger of noise and they sued.
When I was asked to share my perspective on recent events surrounding the OLF and NAS Whidbey, I agreed, largely because I wanted to offer insight into what these anti-OLF actions mean to a community I love, and to an island that – whether it likes it or not – needs us.
Oak Harbor is a Navy town and proud of it. Our patriotism runs deep, and not in a cheesy Toby Keith, “Put a Boot in your Ass” kind of way. It is a patriotism born out of sacrifice and the pride taken in our collective role in supporting our national defense.
As a community we know, on a real and often very personal level, the role we play. “Freedom isn’t Free” isn’t just a cliché, it’s something that is deeply woven into the fabric of our community.
For me and others, it comes from seeing one of the toughest, bravest men I know sitting around a campfire and holding back visible tears as he talked about the war and the time his best friend was sent on a combat mission and never came home.
It comes from sitting in a high school classroom and having one of your fellow classmates called out of class only to later learn that the reason he went home early was to be informed that his father died.
Most recently our community ached for the loss of three of our own pilots in the crash of an EA-6B Prowler on a routine training mission.
In sharing these moments, my hope is to remind us all of what it means to live in a military community, and the very real, very necessary value of ensuring our pilots have the training they need.
At what point aren’t we all asked to share in the costs of freedom. We all benefit, shouldn’t we all sacrifice a little?
When did it become such a burden to do the right thing?
Learning from the past
In 1991 NAS Whidbey Island found itself on a Base Realignment and Closure list and leaders from around the county joined together to save the base.
In that moment a very important lesson was learned — in times of budget crisis, don’t be the squeaky wheel.
With sequestration and a growing national debt, the threat of base closures looms.
To ensure our region puts forward a positive and united front, “Team Whidbey” was created. We are often reminded of the positive effects of this messaging, most recently when NAS Whidbey was awarded the additional P-8 squadrons.
Like any team we have our conflicts, but we attempt to work them out quietly, always ensuring that the message coming from Island County is clear and consistent: We are proud to be the home of NAS Whidbey and the families that serve.
It’s the Economy
Our economy is fragile and everything is interrelated. Just like our eco-system, the economy is easy to damage and hard to repair. The Navy plays a vital role in stabilizing property values and impacts both private and public sector employment throughout our region.
I applaud The Oak Harbor Chamber and the “Jets = Jobs” slogan. It reminds us, in three simple words, about the economic value of NAS Whidbey.
It also highlights the more pragmatic reason we need an active airbase … to quote famed Democrat Strategist James Carville, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Carville was right, and so is the Chamber.
We must find a path forward from this moment; our Island suffers when we are divided. However, moving forward means acknowledging and accepting some basic truths about having a military air station in our backyard — it’s important, it’s a part of who we are and, yes, it’s loud.