Charles Donaldson has been clearing bombs and other munitions from the Makua Valley Military Reservation on and off since 1991. Born and raised on Oahu, he followed his father, a Marine Corps veteran, into the business.
A few weekends a month, he also escorts an unusual tour group in the rugged Army training ground that also holds dozens of ancient cultural sites and is sacred to Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners.
Malama Makua, a local nonprofit group that has long sought to eject the military from the land, gets access to those sites under an agreement with the Army.
The unexploded ordnance technician must walk ahead of the cultural practitioners to keep an eye out for unexploded ordnance after the military spent decades using the valley as a live fire range until a 1998 lawsuit on behalf of Malama Makua brought a stop to the practice. No bullet has been fired there since 2004.
Donaldson, who is contracted by the Army, plays a unique role because he has family ties to members of the community group and usually enjoys a good rapport with the activists.
Most of the interactions during one recent tour were polite, even as activists pointedly told military officials they want the Army out.
“Wasn’t always like that, trust me,” Donaldson said. “I’ve been cussed out many times by those folks.”
Makua Valley, which is on the Leeward Coast near the foothills of the Waianae mountains, is a flashpoint in the struggle between the military and Hawaiian activists seeking to reclaim land they contend was essentially stolen from them in past decades.
The issue is coming to the fore as the Army must soon renew 65-year leases on some 6,300 acres of land on Oahu, including 760 acres in the Makua Valley, that expire in 2029. The Army recently announced it is preparing an environmental impact statement and is seeking public comments for its proposed retention of the training grounds.
Makua, which means parent in Hawaiian, holds particular significance for Hawaiian cultural practitioners since it is considered the place where human life was first created according to oral tradition.
The military began using parts of the valley for live-fire training in the 1920s, when the islands were governed as a U.S. territory.
After the Pearl Harbor attack and the U.S. entrance into World War II, the military imposed martial law in Hawaii and took control of Makua and the island of Kahoolawe for training. It was meant to be temporary — local farming families displaced by the training were told most would be able to return when the war was over.
But in 1945 the War Department asked Hawaii’s Territorial Government for the transfer of 6,608 acres at Makua for training.
In 1964, five years after statehood, the Army paid $1 for a 65-year lease from the state to continue training on Makua and other areas.
“The military’s presence on the land on the coast, they stole at gunpoint,” said Sparky Rodrigues, a Vietnam War veteran who became a co-founder of Malama Makua.
Rodrigues struggled after returning from Vietnam and eventually became part of a homeless community near the valley that he says was evicted by the military.
“I’m not anti-American or anti-military, but I am pro-Hawaiian and pro-aina,” said Rodrigues. “Which puts us in a challenging position in dealing with the military, because they’re promoting their culture and they say they are here to protect our culture.”
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Suzanne Vares-Lum, who helped oversee training and participated in land negotiations in Hawaii and around the Pacific, said she understands why the debate has become so divisive.
“We are living with the decisions made by our grandparents and our ancestors in the military who didn’t really have the knowledge that we have today,” she said in a recent interview.
Comments on the lease renewal plans may be submitted to the Army until Sept. 1 through its website, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail O‘ahu ATLR EIS Comments, P.O. Box 3444, Honolulu, HI 96801-3444
Vares-Lum, the first Native Hawaiian woman to become a general, said the Army is trying to do things differently.
“I think if they knew what we know now back then, I think different decisions would be made in the way that we execute,” she said. “They’re trying to do the best and balance readiness and training with being respectful of the place and people around it.”
Vares-Lum said that one particular point of contention has been the measly dollar the Army paid Hawaii for the land. She said the Army should be prepared to negotiate with the state to figure out a fair market value, and such funds could be used for programs that help Native Hawaiians.
Live fire training has stopped in Makua Valley and soldiers often fly to Big Island’s Pohakuloa training range for large-scale exercises. But the Army says it is crucial to maintain Makua Valley because of its proximity to Schofield Barracks, home to the 25th Infantry Division.
“So it allows the 25th Infantry the kinds of complex training, retraining, and aviation training that it’s very difficult to get to over land,” said Vares-Lum.
It also helps mitigate noise from aircraft training over residential areas that has been a source of frequent complaints from residents.
“It’s in a relatively isolated spot on the island,” said Howard Killian, the training support system program manager at U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii. “That allows us to fly our unmanned aerial systems, from where they’re based at their station at Wheeler Army Airfield, to do all of their training without having to follow a lot of rather restrictive FAA requirements.”
Hawaii’s strategic location in the Pacific has made it the nerve center of American operations in the region, which the Pentagon now considers its top priority theater. As a result, the military is keen to extend leases on land for training and operations.
Allen Hoe traces his lineage back to ancient Hawaiian warriors and has ties to the U.S. Army. He fought in Vietnam after being drafted and later served as a civilian aide to the Secretary of the Army on Oahu. Two of his sons also joined the Army, including one who was killed in Iraq.
Hoe said he believes Hawaii became illegally occupied by the U.S. after the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, but he still supports the retention of land for U.S. military training.
“Hawaii’s role with the military comes from a very difficult position,” said Hoe. “Hawaii has always been the envy of the big powers.”
Tensions currently run high in the Pacific as China also seeks to assert itself as a major power.
“I challenge anyone who will say at this point that the position — or the reality — of the United States military is not necessary,” said Hoe. “It is necessary.”
However, he said he has sometimes disagreed with officials about which lands are “critical.”
He said Makua is a “gray area,” in that he doesn’t believe live fire training should resume, but believes it remains critical for keeping soldiers trained in rough terrain. “We have an obligation that they have the best training,” he said.
The Army has spent millions of dollars on removing explosives from the area and on efforts to preserve the cultural heritage, especially after wildfires caused by live-fire training in the 1990s exposed several cultural sites, many damaged by bombs and bullets.
“Every time a soldier goes out to train at Makua they have mandatory training they have to do with our cultural and natural resource staff so they understand that Makua has 121 cultural sites and you have to respect that,” said Killian.
In 2014 the Army suspended cultural access citing safety concerns. Earthjustice sued the Army on behalf of Malama Makua and in a 2018 settlement the cultural access program resumed.
Today, Malama Makua and the Army have a shaky truce of sorts. Rodrigues said that he’s made an effort to be civil during Cultural Access days and at times has even reached common ground with some military officers and contractors.
Donaldson, who has cleared explosives from many sites said he takes deep pride in clearing bombs and has seen the progression. “It makes my heart happy to actually be able to share with folks and share that knowledge and actually having folks from the Army that are willing and want us to share that.”
But officers at Schofield cycle out every few years, replaced by new ones who may or may not respect previous agreements. And sharp disagreements remain.
Even the question of how best to protect the sites remains divisive. Army archaeologists manage and study the sites, but keep them roped off. Many of the practitioners want to see the sites restored and rebuilt.
“There’s a mindset among the military that Makua is a museum essentially, that it’s something to be put in mothballs and just be preserved and it’s not something that is a vibrant living thing,” said Malama Makua member Justin Hill. “We were told not too long ago that the military was protecting Makua and the sites from us — from damage from us.”
“(With) historic preservation, if it’s something that’s part of its natural decomposing composition — or its death — you leave it, you don’t touch. It becomes a federal offense to fix,” said Rodrigues. “And this is where we take offense and we’ve been asking and working with them.”
Nathan Routt, a former soldier who is now a board member of Malama Makua, said that he ultimately wants to see the valley returned to Hawaiians for agricultural use. The state has set aside land for Hawaiian Homesteads, but much is unusable and the program has been plagued by lack of funding and mismanagement.
But with the spread of COVID-19 leading to a sharp decline in tourism, state officials have looked to military spending and contracts to keep Hawaii’s floundering economy afloat.
“The mission of the military in Hawaii is critical to our way of life right now, and our standard of living right now,” Hoe said. “It is, I think, for me a better choice than tourism.”
Routt said he has little faith in the military after decades of broken promises and believes Army efforts at outreach are mostly performance. Members of Malama Makua protested outside the gate of the training area on Wednesday after the Army moved in-person public comment meetings online citing new state COVID-19 restrictions.
“We’re sitting at the table right now. We got food out, we got everything out ready to talk,” said Routt. “But they don’t want to hear what we have to say.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.