POHAKULOA TRAINING AREA — The bass booms of heavy artillery echoed through the region Sunday morning as plumes of smoke spiraled into the blue skies along the slope of Mauna Loa.
Apache helicopters buzzed overhead as a group of about a dozen business, government and community leaders perched on a hill get a bird’s eye perspective of the action. The group, dubbed “Champions of PTA,” was invited to watch live-fire training exercises coordinated between Schofield Barracks on Oahu and Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island.
PTA offered the opportunity to community members officials say have gone above and beyond to support the troops, the base and the community in general. Invitees included representatives of state and county governments, chambers of commerce, bankers, real estate agents, cultural practitioners and others from across the island.
Steve Klett Of Waikoloa was one of the participants. He said he, like many island residents, regularly drive by PTA but hadn’t really thought about what actually took place behind the gate. He said he was especially appreciative of PTA’s fire control service coming to help put out a fire that threatened Waikoloa Village.
Sunday’s maneuvers were “a thrill” to see, Klett said.
“I certainly could see, almost tangibly, the benefits today,” he said.
State Sen. Kai Kahele, a Hilo Democrat and officer in the Hawaii National Guard, seemed particularly fascinated by the computerized tracking systems, but he took interest in the entire tour.
“It’s good to come up here and get an opportunity to see what’s behind the scenes,” Kahele said.
Some 2,000 troops are participating in “Exercise Lightning Strike,” a two-island exercise where infantry, artillery and aerial forces respond to mobile and stationary pop-up targets featuring plywood Toyota pickup trucks moving on tracks and “enemy forces” on foot.
Relying heavily on technology that’s also used in real-life battle situations, mouse-wielding combat controllers at PTA’s Bax Range Operations Building monitor and direct the action, while counterparts at Schofield, using virtual reality, insert cyber targets that troops also must respond to.
Schofield is a fine facility, but the 133,000-acre PTA, the largest Department of Defense installation in the Pacific, offers unparalleled opportunities to use any type of weapon, said Col. Brendan Raymond, 25th Infantry Division Artillery Commander.
“The opportunities we get at Pohakuloa Training Area are immense,” Raymond said. “There are big, open areas where we can conduct maneuvers. Here we get to extend ourselves.”
The technology, including in-vehicle GPS and cameras, allows for very detailed observation of troops in training, enabling superiors to correct trainees on weapons handling, reaction time and any number of other details.
“This is essential for us to maintain readiness,” said Brig. Gen. J.B. Vowell. “We have to be ready to do this when called upon.”
Vowell said the setup allows the Army also to conduct multi-service exercises coordinated with all five branches of the U.S. military: Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
The Champions of PTA event used to be a regular occurrence at PTA, but this year is the first one in many years, said PTA Commander Lt. Col. Loreto V. Borce Jr, who took command in May. Borce has been advocating increased outreach with community, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and even antiwar activists, with mixed results.
Longtime anti-war activist Jim Albertini was one of two protesters at the gate. Albertini responded with a press release, “Breakfast of Champions and Bombing.” He included a photo of himself holding a sign that said, “Champions don’t bomb.”
“A couple of us stood in protest outside the main PTA gate,” Albertini said in the press release. “Judging from the very light traffic entering the base, not many ‘Champions of PTA’ attended.”
The next outreach event will be an “Experience Pohakuloa” open house from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, which replaces the former Earth Day activities geared toward schoolchildren.
It’s an open house for the public, but many schoolchildren expected on site as well. In fact, said Borce, 15 schools are participating this year, compared to eight last year. Twenty-five educational booths are planned.
Borce said 230 civilian workers, not including contractors, are employed by PTA, with 90 percent of them living in Hilo. He estimated the annual direct or indirect impact at $64 million. In addition to military contractors such as run the Bax Range Operations Building, there are a number of construction contractors, such as a $25 million contract to excavate a quarry to provide building materials for the facility.
“We want to showcase the entire community,” Borce said. “Military is just one aspect, but we have a lot of other expertise here.”