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Big guns: A machine gun range in Vermont shows what might be coming for Cape Cod

Eve Zuckoff

JERICHO, Vermont – “Sit up. Up and to the right. And push that trigger down all the way.”

On that command from Master Sgt. Jon Ruth, a Massachusetts Army National Guard specialist named Jasmine Meneide sent an ear-splitting burst of rounds from the barrel of a .50-caliber machine gun toward a target on a mile-long grassy plain.

Learn more about the proposed machine gun range for Cape Cod

“There you go,” Ruth told Meneide, a cosmetologist in her civilian life who was undergoing her first-ever training on the five-foot-long, 84-pound weapon.

“If you have to slide your butt back, slide your butt back,” Ruth instructed. “Just get yourself a position of leverage every time.”

Sitting on the grass and dirt, her knees bent and a leg stretched along each side of the gun, Meneide gripped two handles several inches apart.

“You have nothing to be worried about,” Ruth assured her. “Like I said, everything bad that's going to happen is down at that end over there.”

Meneide leaned back and peered through the sights down range, then pressed the twin triggers with her thumbs. This time, her rounds found the posterboard target suspended by two-by-fours ten yards down range.

Just beyond the clearing at Camp Ethan Allen was the perfect Vermont fall mountain-scape: golden foliage, then dark purple peaks stretching as far as the eye could see.

Eve Zuckoff / CAI

For the past two-and-a-half years, the Massachusetts Army National Guard and opponents on Cape Cod have been locked in battle over whether a range like this one should be built at Joint Base Cape Cod near the Sandwich border. It would accommodate three kinds of machine guns: the M249, M240, and eventually, the heaviest duty, M21A .50 caliber (often called the "fifty caliber").

Guard officials say it’s essential for improving readiness and to avoid the six- to ten- hour drive to Vermont or the next-nearest range in northern New York.

But Cape residents and skeptical local officials have raised concerns about how the range could pollute groundwater, expose nearby neighborhoods and an elementary school to the sound of heavy machine gun fire, and displace wildlife. The project would require clear-cutting about 170 acres of forest.

As the machine gun range project on Joint Base Cape Cod awaits an unprecedented review from the Environmental Protection Agency, a visit to the Camp Ethan Allen Training Site in Vermont offered perspective on the sights and sounds that might be coming to the Cape.

Elodie Reed / Vermont Public

The long ride to training

During a seven-hour ride to Vermont in an armored Humvee, Massachusetts battalion commander Lt. Colonel Dustin Walker explained why Guard members need a closer range.

“One of the biggest resources that we lack is just the time,” he said, battling to be heard over the rattling road sound. “When we think about coming up here, that time takes away from other training.”

Guardsmen and women from all six New England states share the Vermont range, making it difficult to schedule and qualify nearly 300 Massachusetts teams on the .50 caliber machine gun each year.

“So we run into the issue of [getting] bumped,” Walker said.

Guard troops are bumped off the range two or three times a year, impacting hundreds of soldiers each time, according to Walker.

But even when officials can schedule time on ranges in Vermont or New York, riding up in a Humvee convoy eats up as much as two days of a four-day training period.

To Walker, a range on Cape Cod would mean, “we would basically gain an additional day-and-a-half [to train].”

Map showing distances from existing machine gun ranges to the proposed range at Joint Base Cape Cod.

Meanwhile, another machine gun range in central Massachusetts at Fort Devens is in the works. But it won’t be big enough to accommodate the .50 caliber machine gun.

Which brings up the question: why do Guard members — who are most visible in the aftermath of a statewide crisis or storm — need to learn how to shoot a gun that can blow holes in hardened targets like lightly armored vehicles or bunkers?

While its members can be activated to drive school buses during a labor shortage, Walker said, they have also been deployed as part of military actions abroad.

“At the end of the day, if we end up coming under direct fire, the way that we're going to most effectively survive is if we've gone through these reps over and over again,” he said, “so that it's just almost second nature.”

In fact, currently, 600 members of the Massachusetts Army National Guard are deployed and nearly 3,500 have been sent overseas in the last 10 years, according to a Guard spokesman.

For Sgt. Richard Sawyer, a 40-year-old member of the Guard, the time-savings from less travel would make a massive difference.

“If we had a closer facility, then it means more people are training, more people are willing to train, more people want to train,” he said, “and you're going to have a better outcome with that.”

When Sawyer isn’t fulfilling his Guard duties, he’s a police officer – and father – in Methuen.

“So instead of getting that extra hour to sleep, kiss my kids, send them to school or spend time before they have to go to bed,” he said, “now I have to wake up earlier because now that convoy is going to start a lot earlier so that we can get to our place of duty on time.”

Concerns over water, wildlife, and noise

None of the Guard's arguments for a .50 caliber range are likely to sway critics, who for years have fought to ensure that military training at Joint Base Cape Cod is compatible with water and wildlife protection. For decades, until the 1980s, military training on the Base contaminated drinking water, creating a superfund site on the Cape that continues to be cleaned up to this day.

Locals fear a return to a time Guard officials ignored community concerns, and they want the Guard to seek range options elsewhere.

Elodie Reed / Vermont Public

But Cape Cod isn’t the only region where a community must manage diverging opinions about living so close to the sound of firing.

“Some people in town get really upset about it,” said Vermont resident Miriam Pendleton. “We had a neighbor who had moved in and maybe they didn't understand how annoying they would find it.”

Pendleton has lived in her home just a few miles from Camp Ethan Allen since 1982, and said she hears gunfire on a regular basis.

“They rattle the windows for sure,” she said.

In a report, the Guard acknowledged that homeowners and elementary school children in a neighborhood that borders the Cape Cod base will be able to hear machine gun firing Friday to Saturday weekly and special training may occasionally be scheduled during the week.

But many in the Vermont neighborhood say sounds of a range don’t bother them. The base has been in operation for roughly a century, so gunfire has always been background noise for Pendleton and her 93-year-old neighbor, Jean Archibald.

“I guess the only time I object to it is on a Sunday morning — on Sundays and weekends, if there's very loud continual booming,” Archibald said in a video call from her home. “But … to be honest about my own feelings about it: it's there, and I'm not that upset about it.”

In fact, to others, the sound is comforting.

“Sounds like this are the sound of freedom,” wrote another Vermont resident, Nancy Carey, in an email, “the sound of training for our military, the sound of professionals, the sound of those who sign up to defend our country.”

The question is: if a similar range is built in their backyard, will opponents on Cape Cod ever feel the same?

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.

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