By Takao Nogami, The Asahi Shimbun
HIGASHI, Okinawa Prefecture–Former U.S. Marine Matthew Hoh once served his country in Okinawa Prefecture, leading war drills in the forest here.
Today, Hoh and five other U.S. military veterans have joined daily protests against the construction of U.S. Marine helipads in the same woodland.
They are saying it is insane to destroy a vast swath of forest in northern Okinawa to conduct war exercises.
The veterans are members of Veterans for Peace (VFP), a U.S. antiwar group. They joined the protests near Takae, a district of Higashi, from late August. Hoh and two other former U.S. Marines in the group were previously stationed in this southernmost prefecture.
The demonstrators are demanding a halt to the helipad project and are in continual clashes since July with hundreds of riot police that have been mobilized from across Japan.
The veterans said they used to follow what the U.S. government told them without raising questions when they were young. However, they started opposing the military’s activities after the 2003 Iraq War as well as other conflicts that included Afghanistan and Vietnam.
Work to build four helipads has been ongoing near Takae since July after it was previously suspended due to local opposition. Two helipads, which were completed by 2014, are currently being used by U.S. Marines.
The helipad project is based on the bilateral agreement in 1996 to return half of the land of Camp Gonsalves, the 7,800-hectare U.S. Marine Corps jungle warfare training area straddling Higashi and neighboring Kunigami village.
One condition of the agreement was that six helipads–each 75 meters in diameter–would be built in the middle of the forest near Takae to replace those in the area to be returned to Japan.
Hoh, 43, knows the forest well. He led troops in drills twice a month in the training area in the woodland, but he said such exercises could be held in the United States.
Japanese and U.S. leaders, he continued, would realize that they were completely wrong about the helipad project if they set foot in the forest, which he described as beautiful and without equal in the world.
Hoh said he had spotted a variety of animals in the forest while he was training.
He added he and the other vets were determined to draw worldwide attention to what is occurring in Takae and also highlight the Okinawan people’s fight against the U.S. military presence.
Okinawa, which represents 0.6 percent of the nation’s land mass, is home to 74 percent of U.S. bases in Japan.
The veterans were due to leave Okinawa on Sept. 9 for the United States.
The veterans’ delegation was formed after VFP unanimously decided in its annual convention in August to demand a halt to the helipad project.
The group also calls for the retraction of the planned relocation of the functions of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan to the Henoko district of Nago, both in the prefecture, as well as urging tilt-rotor Osprey be removed from the Futenma airfield. Futenma is the only U.S. base in Japan where the noisy Osprey aircraft are deployed. Osprey aircraft have been involved in a number of accidents overseas, with fatalities.
One of VFP’s most prominent members is Academy Award-winning movie director Oliver Stone. The organization, founded in 1985, has an estimated membership of about 3,500. It assists protests against U.S. military bases around the world and promotes peace.
Riot police have forcibly removed protesters since late July as they continually try to hinder the helipad project with sit-ins and by other means.