BAUMHOLDER, Germany -- When Japanese journalists showed up about a month ago to cover the departure of the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, they were surprised to find locals fretting about it, according to the town’s deputy mayor.
While residents of Okinawa have an at-times-uneasy relationship with the U.S. military based there, the town of Baumholder has long embraced and grown to depend on the American presence.
“The main thing is to keep this garrison open,” said Deputy Mayor Michael Roehrig in a recent interview. “That’s really important for the region, not only for Baumholder.”
A town of roughly 4,600 Germans, Baumholder has been host to about 13,000 American troops and family members since the 1950s. When the Defense Department announced earlier this year that it would inactivate the 170th and 172nd infantry brigades, Baumholder residents and leaders alike agonized about their town’s future.
While some U.S. military communities, such as Bamberg and Schweinfurt, are slated for closure, Baumholder has been declared an enduring community, easing those worries somewhat, but not completely.
As troops march out in droves, the primary concern Roehrig and other residents have now is: How many troops will the Army keep here? The answer, which nobody seems to know, may decide the town’s fate.
A handful of “For Rent” signs have popped up in storefront windows in recent months as the 170th sheds thousands of troops ahead of its October inactivation. Hundreds of troops are out-processing every week, leaving empty barracks behind and overloading support services, which frustrates soldiers with tight deadlines and forces them to wait in long lines. Base renovations are on hold, putting local jobs on the line, Roehrig said.
Already, some downtown businesses have seen sales decline.
“It’s going to be a dead town soon,” Margit Wilson, the German-born spouse of a 170th soldier, predicted, on one of her last visits to the USA Nails salon.
“We know that there’s a concern,” the garrison’s new commander, Lt. Col. Michael Sullivan, said in an interview after assuming the job this month. “We know that everybody’s trying to get a feel for the future. And the best we can tell them is, we’re gonna keep giving the support that we can give until we hear different from higher.”
What is known is that while the post is downsizing, some units, such as Bamberg’s 16th Sustainment Brigade, are slated to move in, he said.
“You’ll see the main push start early next year,” Sullivan said, adding that parts of a medical brigade are already settling in at Baumholder. “But it doesn’t offset the larger decrease of the 170th leaving, obviously.”
Roehrig said Baumholder would be fine if the base returned to just half of what it was before the 170th started to leave. Over the last decade, the troop population has dipped well below that numerous times, as the 170th and the brigade it replaced here in 2009 deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan a combined four times. Whether it gets back to half what it was, Roehrig doesn’t know.
“I don’t have the information I need,” he said.
Business owners expressed similar sentiments.
Across from the base’s Wetzel Housing Area, license plates representing all 50 U.S. states and two U.S. territories hang in the auto repair shop and junkyard run by Ulrich Werner. His father, Erich, opened the shop 40 years ago, and troops have made up a major part of the business ever since.
These days, Americans rushing to leave bring Werner one or two cars a day to junk, more than usual, he said. It’s good for business now, but also worrying; when it’s over, he doesn’t know if enough troops will remain to keep the business going.
“They’re talking about bringing new people in here, but we don’t know how many and when,” Werner said.
“There’s a lot of rumors going around,” said Heiko Bomersbach, a mechanic and salesman at The B-site bicycle shop on the town’s main strip. “Nobody really knows what’s going on.”
Business is up at the B-site, too, as departing troops have their bikes dismantled and packed for shipment and make last-minute purchases of models not available in the U.S., Bomersbach said.
Such last-minute buying, according to Bomersbach, represents a key difference between his countrymen and American customers, one that has driven the town’s economy: if a soldier has cash, he spends it.
“Germans are way different. They save. And they even save when they’re dead,” he chuckled.
Troops aren’t the only ones who’ve kept the downtown going over the years.
Army spouses account for about 70 percent of business at USA Nails; nearly all the rest are German women who work on base, said owner Mai Hien. Every week more customers tell him this is their last visit.
Gesturing toward Wilson, the Army wife who was waiting for her appointment, Hien said: “Here’s another one, for example. She’s been here for awhile and she’s leaving. We’re not kicking her out, but she’s leaving.”
Wilson, whose husband received orders about five weeks before he was to report for duty at Fort Benning, Ga., said it felt like the Army was rushing the 170th soldiers out.
She changed bases twice before and said they got three months to make each of those moves. So even though she knew the 170th was disbanding and the move was coming, she didn’t apply for a U.S. visa — a requirement for German spouses — until a few weeks ago. It won’t come in for at least another month.
“We can’t leave as a family like we wanted to,” she said. “And that sucks pretty much.”
For Pfc. Alec Hakes, a 24-year-old from Marshall, Mich., leaving will put his family back together. He arrived here last October and started filing paperwork to bring his wife to Germany. Because of the inactivation, her move wasn’t approved, he said.
So even though he’s rushing to get out, he’s happy to do it.
Hakes and two friends showed up at the base travel office at 11:30 p.m. recently, more than eight hours before it opened, to get a jump on the 200 or so other soldiers getting orders out each week.
“My roommate got here at midnight and there were already 20 people waiting when he came like three weeks ago,” Hakes, said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes after six-and-a-half hours of waiting.
“It kind of sucks having to get here so early, but it’s worth it,” he said, holding the place at the head of the line.
Sgt. Kevin Ward, a 29-year-old tracked-vehicle mechanic from Chesapeake, Va., said his orders came in less than a month before he had to leave for his new duty station. He then spent weeks waiting in long lines alongside fellow soldiers who, like him, had to go through a lengthy checklist of office visits before they could leave Baumholder.
“And I still gotta go to one more place to get signatures, then hopefully I can be able to final out,” he said on a recent Friday, with two hours to finish the task before heading off to Fort Bliss, Texas, with his wife and four children.
“I have to be there on Tuesday,” he said, wishing he’d had time to take leave en route to his new assignment. “They actually kind of pushed us out of here.”
Ward isn’t alone in feeling that way.
“What we’re hearing and what we’re seeing is soldiers frustrated with short notice for their orders,” said Jeffery Morrison, the base’s transportation officer. The short notice “is creating them a hardship.”
Moving companies, which are already dealing with a seasonal rush of troop moves from across Germany, are booked solid about three weeks out, according to Morrison. Some troops haven’t been able to get their household goods picked up when they wanted, and some had to rebook their flights for later dates, gutting their leave.
The base’s vehicle processing center, which is arranging to move soldiers’ personal vehicles to their next duty stations, is keeping up with the exodus, but barely.
“At a normal base during the peak PCS (permanent change of station) season, which we’re in now, there might be about eight outbound cars on a daily basis,” Romy Carr, who manages the office, said. “We’re looking at 18 per day. That’s as much as we can do in a day. Otherwise, it would be more.”
“With everybody PCSing right now, it’s a madhouse,” said Kristi Condi, an Army spouse who runs the base’s Java Cafe.
She was referring to the frenzy of troops trying to leave, not the cafe. Business has slowed so much that Condi has asked to reduce Saturday hours.
In the frenzy, she said, a handful of pets were left behind, including a cat adopted by an on-base club and a dog found tied to a tree in the town of Kusel.
The dog, Angie, has undergone two operations after a vet discovered she had cancer, said Horst Kronauer, who volunteers at the shelter caring for the doberman.
Papers left with Angie identified her as belonging to an American soldier and his German wife. They left the dog tied up at Kusel’s train station, Kronauer said, then “they went to Frankfurt for their flight to America.”
Incidents like that don’t do much to strain relations, Roehrig, the deputy mayor, said; Germans do silly things, too.
“We have Americans living in Baumholder since 1951, so over 60 years,” Roehrig said, noting that, at 50, he’s lived alongside them all his life. “I got my first chewing gum from a GI.”
However many troops are left here after the 170th is gone, he said, “it will be a big change.” But he wants to know that number “to sleep better in the nighttime.”