DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
A.J. Mead helped yesterday to position one of the containers at a new training facility at Bellows that will be used to train Marines for urban warfare.
Bellows training facility draws protests
Waimanalo residents say they were never informed about plans to build a mock city
Nearly four dozen Waimanalo residents are expected to demonstrate at Bellows Air Force Station's front gate this morning to protest the construction by the Marines of an urban warfare site.
Kekoa Ho, chairman of the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board, said last night the protest is because the Marines never informed the Windward Oahu community of its plans to build a $3 million mock city using shipping containers. The facility is to better prepare Kaneohe Marines for what they will face in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said yesterday.
"We feel that it is a breach of trust, and we were surprised to read about it in the newspaper last month," Ho said.
He estimated that as many as 50 residents plan to peacefully demonstrate at the gate to the military installation between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Marine officials say the entire problem was one of miscommunication and that the training facility was in the planning stages for a long time and in fact was scaled back.
The Marines had hoped to show Waimanalo Neighborhood Board members yesterday afternoon what was being done. But Ho said the invitation came too late, and board members were unable to get off from work. He said they plan to visit the site late next week.
Lt. Col. Daniel Lathrop, operations officer for the Kaneohe Marine base, told congressional staff members and reporters the community might not have been informed because there would not be an increase in the number of troops training there.
"There will be the same number of Marines coming through here," Lathrop added, "and there will be no impact on the environment and the community."
He said that up to 200 Marines train at Bellows. "We are not changing the level of training or the frequency. There will be no extra traffic."
He said Marines will continue to fire blank ammunition in their M-16 rifles.
Even when simulators will be used as mock improvised explosive devices, they will just be small balloons that when popped will emit only white powder. Training during the week will be conducted from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends.
The Marines use about 1,000 acres at Bellows -- most of the area is fenced off. No civilian vehicles are allowed in the training area, which was once an airfield.
Four areas are being used to replicate urban settings using 180 shipping containers, all painted tan. Doors and windows have been cut into the containers. In one area the containers are stacked on top of each other to replicate a two-story building.
The idea is to give the Marines the feeling of the tight quarters they will be encountering in Iraqi and Afghan villages.
The Marines hope to build a similar facility at the Big Island's Pohakuloa Training Area. They expect the Bellows urban warfare site will be used by the Hawaii Army National Guard and local law enforcement.
State Sen. Fred Hemmings, who attended yesterday's briefing, said "the U.S. military is a good neighbor, especially in Waimanalo, and they are great stewards of the land."
Hemmings, who represents the area, said he has no problems with what the Marines are doing.
Kaneohe Marine officials hope to send the first batch of Marines through the urban complex sometime this month.