BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. Army Europe, has a rule that commanders don’t have a right to a bad day. In a speech Tuesday honoring the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, he said he was going to violate the rule.
The 170th, a unit brought back to active service in 2009, cased its colors Tuesday for the third and possibly last time. The casing was sad to watch, Hertling said, “so I will not try to put a positive spin on today’s events.”
The inactivation, the second combat brigade inactivation here in a little over three years, simultaneously closed the book on the brigade and on Baumholder’s long tenure as a combat arms post, a role the base has filled since the early days of the Cold War.
Well off the beaten path and little known to most outside the Army, this town in the rolling hills of western Germany was for decades the locus of one of the largest concentrations of American combat arms troops outside the U.S.
But with about 4,000 of the brigade’s total strength of roughly 4,500 soldiers already gone, Baumholder is as quiet as it has been in decades.
Bill Kalavsky, who first came to this hill town in 1972 as an 18-year-old Army maintenance technician, hasn’t ever seen the town and base so hushed. Back then, Baumholder and its four satellite communities housed about 20,000 Americans, far outnumbering their German hosts, he said.
“It was a time of four (German) Marks to the U.S. dollar back then. Every other house in Baumholder was a guest house or a bar. Oh, it was booming. I’m telling you, this was a booming place.”
“I mean, it’s like a ghost town,” said Kalavsky who now lives there in retirement. “I can just picture the tumbleweeds rolling through the roads.”
Cpl. Hunter Keniry, a 29-year-old fuel technician with the brigade’s 3rd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, only got here three years ago, but said he appreciated the history of the post troops have long called “The Rock.” He was with the brigade on its only deployment to Afghanistan, during which the unit lost nine men.
“This is a pretty big moment,” Keniry, of San Diego, said. “The wars are drawing down. It looks like the presence in Europe may not be as much as it was. And so, I mean, yeah, we’re kind of just standing here in the ceremony, but this is a very important event in terms of military history, regimental history, brigade history.”
The U.S. Army took over Baumholder from French forces in 1951, and soldiers from the base have taken part in every American conflict since, said Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Cox, another member of the brigade’s 3rd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment. “So, yeah,” he said of the inactivation, “it’s kind of painful.”
The 43-year-old Bradley mechanic from Kansas City, Mo., said this was “about the third” unit inactivation he’s gone through in his 26 years in the Army. “When I first got over here as a private in 1987, there were five full divisions over here. I mean, that’s 100,000-plus combat arms soldiers.”
Even as other communities drew down, Baumholder endured. Over the last couple decades, it was one of the most deployed communities in the entire Army, Cox said.
With the shuttering of the post’s last combat arms unit, “it’s gonna be strange,” Cox said. “It’s gonna be unheard of, you know? It’s something new. It’s a new chapter. But with change might come something good.”
Col. Mark D. Raschke, who will remain in his position as brigade commander until December when all the unit’s troops and gear are gone, said after the ceremony not to read too much into the fact that the programs and his speech referred to Tuesday’s ceremony as a “deactivation.”
The unit’s historical items will transition to the Center for Army Heraldry, where they’ll be “ready to be unleashed on the next unit that stands up 170th, just like other units that have closed down,” he said.
With most of the unit’s soldiers already gone, the inactivation was a low-key event. Hertling and Raschke kept their remarks short, and there were no concussions of artillery that had accompanied a similar inactivation for an artillery unit here a few years ago.
“Well, with all great things, the bigger hoorah you make, the harder it becomes for people to go,” said Jeff Morrison, who has lived in Baumholder since 1995, first as a soldier, then as a civilian working on base. “And if you just go calmly, people just take it as the natural flow of things.”
Hertling, adding a positive spin he said earlier he’d forgo, said there was one thing to celebrate as the 170th cased its colors.
“As I looked across the formation, I saw some privates, a couple of lieutenants and a few buck sergeants,” Hertling said. “Those young privates and sergeants and second lieutenants will proudly wear the bayonet combat patch today, but in a few years they’ll be asked by people that don’t know any better, ‘What the hell patch is that?’ And they will know.”