BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Amid the packing out of hundreds of soldiers and families with the 170th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and the turning in of equipment after their latest Afghan deployment, the brigade paused Tuesday to welcome a new commander to oversee its inactivation later this year.
Col. Patrick Matlock relinquished command to Col. Mark Raschke, whose job will be to guide the Bayonet Brigade’s historic final months in Germany as it prepares for its Oct. 15 inactivation.
Most of the brigade’s 4,500 soldiers and their family members are expected to be gone from Baumholder by then, Army officials said.
“It’s a little bittersweet for sure, because I know in a few months this will all be finished,” Matlock said of the brigade’s mission in Germany.
“An American brigade has been in Baumholder since 1956. It’s been an important part of the Army’s history in Europe.”
A year ago, Matlock was in Afghanistan, leading the brigade during a 12-month combat deployment that soldiers didn’t know at the time would be the unit’s last.
Shortly after the brigade began returning to Baumholder earlier this year, the Pentagon announced that the 170th, along with the 172nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, based in Grafenwöhr, Germany, would be inactivated as part of a larger military restructuring plan.
The 170th since 2003 has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan four times – three of those as the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, before the unit in 2009 was reflagged to the 170th, Matlock said.
Matlock, who took command of the brigade three years ago, is moving to Fort Bliss, Texas, to be chief of staff of Fort Bliss and the 1st Armored Division. Raschke, who served as the brigade’s deputy commander for two years, is expected to stay on at Baumholder until the end of the year, he said.
With the dissolution of the brigade now well under way, about 1,500 soldiers and their families have departed Baumholder, Matlock and Raschke said. About 90 percent of the unit’s equipment — everything from vehicles and weapons to night vision goggles and cameras — has been turned in to the Army, they said. Most of the brigade’s facilities still need to be cleaned and turned over to the garrison.
“Our No. 1 order is to take care of soldiers and their families,” Raschke said, “and that is going to entail getting them out of here as easily as we can.”
With soldiers departing at a rate of about 200 per week, that process has been challenging at times, Matlock and Raschke said.
“We’ve maxed the system out,” Matlock said. “There’s some long lines. There’s a little bit of frustration every once in a while.” But, he added, “in general, things are moving forward properly.”
Some of that frustration was evident on the faces of soldiers waiting outside the SATO travel office Tuesday to book a Patriot Express or commercial flight for permanent-change-of-station moves.
Sgt. Russell Treme showed up two hours before the office opened, but was 29th on the list when sign-ups began at 8 a.m. Soldiers ahead of him were there at 4 a.m., he said. He attributed the wait to “just so many people trying to get through. It’s just part of the (PCS) process.”
Matlock and Raschke said SATO has added staff, but soldiers Tuesday wondered why the office hadn’t expanded its hours.
Business has been brisk in downtown Baumholder, where business owners who depend on the Americans seemed more optimistic than they were several months ago, when many worried the Pentagon might shutter the post after the brigade’s departure.
Army officials have since designated Baumholder an enduring Army community in Europe. The garrison is expected to gain between 2,000 and 2,500 soldiers, most from logistics and supply units elsewhere in Germany, a garrison spokesman said Tuesday.
“It seems more of our soldiers are coming in right now, maybe to get something done before they leave,” said Oliver Riede, a tattoo artist at Jörg’s Tattoo & Piercing Studio in Baumholder.
The brigade’s exodus doesn’t worry Jörg Aldensell, the studio’s owner since 1992. “Maybe business will be as before, when all the soldiers were in Iraq,” he said, noting the brigade’s frequent deployments downrange.
“Hopefully, there will still be some people getting tattoos,” Riede said.