Recently, a citizen of Coupeville, Washington wrote a letter to the Whidbey News-Times.  She voiced an often-heard complaint that the jets from the nearby Naval Air Station make too much noise and are disruptive to the lives of the local residents.   Specifically, she expressed concern about talk of expanded hours for training and suggested the U.S Navy should be more considerate.  “Listen up, Navy: We pay taxes here. I suspect you don’t. We aren’t your guests. In reality, you are ours.”

As one would imagine, the response from local service members and their families was fast and overwhelming.   Many comments on the paper’s website were polite but firm in their support for the training flights.  Unfortunately, some were inappropriate, rude, vulgar, and even threatening.  The News-Times shut down the comments section because their small staff could not feasibly review all comments and delete only the inappropriate ones.  Facebook and Letters to the Editor continue to remain available forums for comment on the issue.

At issue are the Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) flights that the EA-6B Prowler and EA-18G Growler squadrons conduct as part of their pre-deployment training cycle.   Both at the main air station in Oak Harbor and an outlying field in Coupeville, aircrew practice the demanding task of landing on an aircraft carrier.  The runway has a small rectangle painted on it (the same size as the landing area on the ship) and the same optical landing system, or “ball”, that the pilots use to fly the correct glideslope all the way to touchdown.  These flights on land are essential for aircrew to learn and retain the proper muscle movements, instrument scan, crew coordination, and communications required for flawless execution at sea.  As the saying goes, amateurs practice until they get it right, but professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.

To be honest, the flights do produce a lot of noise and it can be annoying when you are sitting at home (even for fellow aviators).  The problem is especially acute in Whidbey during summertime, where because of the high latitude, the sun may not fully set until 10:30 pm, forcing night training to be conducted until two or three in the morning.  Noise complaints are a particularly contentious topic because over the years, a few residents have taken extreme measures to display their annoyance: spotlights, lasers, and fireworks aimed at the aircraft.  Such acts have the effect of not just annoying the aircrew, but of disorienting them, putting their lives and local residents at risk.  (Full disclosure: I have spent nine years stationed at Whidbey Island, have conducted countless FCLP events, and have had spotlights and fireworks directed at my aircraft.)

“The Sound of Freedom” is the common phrase we use to defend the noise, the idea being  that the annoyance is a small price to pay for the liberties we all enjoy as Americans.  Those liberties, of course, include freedom of speech, and the author of the letter in question has a right to voice her opinion, no matter how rude or ill-informed, and the News-Times has the right to publish it.

The public, including the military community, have the right to respond, no matter how rude or ill-informed.  No one, however, has the right to make threats, or to harass her on the phone and by drive by her house honking the horn repeatedly.   I am pleased that local and military authorities are investigating such threats and actions.

When discussing the jet noise, it is not enough to say, “the military protects our freedom, therefore anything the military does to protect that freedom is justified”.  The military is part of the federal government.  Read that sentence in quotes again, but replace “military” with “government” and see if it doesn’t give you pause. Such sentiments are dangerous, and has led Americans to accept unconstitutional government actions such as the passing of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War Two, and the torture of detainees during the last decade.

The Navy has the responsibility to be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money and the environment, and to be courteous neighbors, and in my experience it does.  The squadrons conduct the minimum number of flights to reach the required proficiency.  (Believe me, no one wants to do more FLCPs than necessary)  To further minimize the impact, the air station puts limits to the number of aircraft in the pattern and where they can fly, avoiding over-flight of the most populous areas, even if that impacts the realism of flight pattern as compared to what is actually executed when at the aircraft carrier.

Notice in the above paragraph, I said “neighbors” and not “guests”.   The part of the letter that prompted such a vociferous response from the sailor-citizens and retirees in the community is the fact that she considers “the navy” to be “guests” who don’t pay taxes.   Of course service members pay taxes: on their income, on their property, and on the items they buy at the store.  For the author to refer to sailor-citizens as guests and not neighbors and fellow residents was incredibly thoughtless.

One apologist on Facebook said that the author was calling the “Navy” as an institution the guest, since it doesn’t pay property tax on the land upon which the air station was built.   That interpretation of the letter doesn’t make sense based on the plural personal pronouns  (“they”, “their”) the author used to describe “the navy, as in a group of individuals, instead of using “it” to describe the institution.  Besides, even if she was complaining about the U.S. Navy as an institution, for it to pay property taxes defies logic.  That would be like asking the fire or police department to pay property taxes.  Or asking them to not use their sirens at night, so that citizens not be disturbed.

Some of the respondents made equally rude statements that Oak Harbor and surrounding towns wouldn’t exist if not for the economic boon provided by the air station and its servicemembers and families.  Although the town would be smaller, with a very different economy, to say that the town would disappear is disrespectful to all the hardworking residents of Oak Harbor, the vast majority of whom are incredibly supportive of the air station and its mission.

Ultimately, the most important take away from this whole incident is that the “sound of freedom” should be more than just jets flying overhead.  It should be the sound of civil discourse; the sound of citizens exercising their right to put forth arguments that are passionate yet free from the invective, and vitriol that we see far to much of these days.

Disclaimer: This essay is my personal opinion, and in no way represents the official position of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

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