EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE - Residents welcomed Marines who landed Friday on beaches at this Florida Panhandle base, in contrast to protests that led the Corps to leave its former training site on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico.
William Lightburn, 76, a Korean War Army veteran, and his wife, Wanda, 68, lined their yard at Wynnhaven Beach with small U.S. flags and invited about a dozen disabled veterans to watch from their pier on Santa Rosa Sound about 100 feet from one of three landing sites.
Marines laid a carpet across U.S. 98 to protect it from possible damage while amphibious assault vehicles and tanks crossed the busy highway to reach the interior of this 724-square-mile base.
"This is where the action is," Wanda Lightburn said. "We are very supportive of the military and have had very good experience with them."
About 50 local people stood along an entrance road and waved at the Marines, who are training for a deployment to the Mediterranean and possibly Iraq.
About 1,500 members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C., are participating in the six-day live-fire exercise with the Navy and Air Force. Another 5,500 Marines, sailors, and airmen are aboard ships in the gulf or flying from Eglin and other nearby bases.
The Marines will use the exercise to decide whether to make Eglin a permanent training site, one of several installations under study to replace Vieques.
The Navy closed its bombing range on the Puerto Rican island in May following a series of protests after errant bombs killed a civilian security guard in 1999.
The presence of Gen. Michael Hagee, Marine Corps commandant, underscored the importance of the exercise.
Hagee declined to compare Eglin with Vieques but said the air base, which includes beaches, forests and swamps, has excellent potential. "We are looking at any training area that will allow us to test our tactics, techniques and procedures in a realistic way."
Terry Ewing, 43, of Wynnhaven Beach, who was among the crowd cheering the Marines, couldn't understand the protests that drove them from Vieques.
"These people that protest don't understand the times we are living in," he said.