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Sgt. Anita Taylor, right, and Sgt. Jayson Essmyer of the 1st Infantry Division's Kitzingen-based 12th Chemical Company, stand at attention shortly before the farewell ceremony Friday in Würzburg, Germany, for the "Big Red One."
Sgt. Anita Taylor, right, and Sgt. Jayson Essmyer of the 1st Infantry Division's Kitzingen-based 12th Chemical Company, stand at attention shortly before the farewell ceremony Friday in Würzburg, Germany, for the "Big Red One." (Steve Liewer / S&S)

WüRZBURG, Germany — With the Würzburg-based 1st Infantry Division just days from deployment to Iraq, senior German leaders bid auf wiedersehen Friday to the “Big Red One” — and urged the United States to leave the unit in southern Germany permanently once it returns home.

“Bavaria continues to rely on the protection and friendship of the United States of America,” said Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber, speaking through a translator to about 500 Americans and Germans at Leighton Barracks. “The U.S. Army, ‘our’ 1st Infantry Division, must remain in Bavaria. Not only will it continue to find here the best strategic and military conditions to work under, it will also continue to find here the many bonds between our peoples.”

The Pentagon has proposed a sweeping transformation of the U.S. armed forces around the world, one that is expected to include a shift of troops from western Europe to eastern Europe, Africa and the United States. Details have not been made public, but it is expected to include a significant reduction in Army forces in Germany.

Stoiber, who narrowly lost the German prime minister’s race in 2002 to Gerhard Schröder, led a delegation at the farewell ceremony that included three German army generals as well as many local mayors, county commissioners and members of the state parliament. He has been actively lobbying to keep American troops in Bavaria.

“Dear soldiers,” he said, “your presence in Bavaria … is indispensable to peace and stability in Europe and is a key element in trans-Atlantic relations.”

On the U.S. side, U.S. Ambassador Daniel Coats, U.S. Army Europe Commander Gen. B.B. Bell, and 1st ID Commander Maj. Gen. John R.S. Batiste delivered speeches thanking Bavarians for their steadfast support.

Coats said he spoke for President Bush in expressing gratitude on behalf of the 13 million U.S. soldiers and family members who have served tours of duty in Bavaria since the end of World War II.

“They have fond and lasting memories of the time they spent here and the friends they have made,” Coats said.

Over the next few weeks, nearly 12,000 1st ID soldiers will leave their bases in northern Bavaria for Middle East duty: 4,000 from Schweinfurt; 2,000 each from Vilseck and Kitzingen; 1,500 from Bamberg; and 1,000 each from Würzburg and Katterbach. It is the first deployment of the full division since 1999.

A year ago, the 1st ID packed up to join the invasion of Iraq through Turkey, but it was kept at home after the Turkish parliament refused to grant permission for U.S. troops to deploy there.

This year, its assignment is just as tough. It will be replacing the 4th Infantry Division in occupying the rebellious area northwest of Baghdad known as the “Sunni Triangle.” Its headquarters will be in Tikrit, the hometown of captured Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Nearly 50 4th ID soldiers have died, most of them in guerrilla attacks on Army convoys.

“The mission going forward is still difficult and the enemy is still dangerous,” Coats said. “I can assure you … that our country has confidence in your ability, and we are certain of your success.”

Bell and Batiste both predicted the “Big Red One” will return to Germany in the spring of 2005 cloaked in glory.

“The 1st ID combat team is the right unit, at the right time, under the right conditions,” Batiste said. “By the end of this worthwhile mission, there is no doubt in my mind we will declare victory.”

Because of cold, snowy weather, 1st ID leaders moved the ceremony indoors from Victory Park. They unveiled a plaque that will be placed in the park, and flipped the switch on a tree that will remain lighted until all of the division’s soldiers return home next year.

“Most of us are focusing on coming back more than leaving,” said Sgt. Jayson Essmyer, 23, of Detroit, a four-year veteran whose scheduled departure from the Army this spring has been postponed for more than a year by the Iraq assignment. “We’ve got to do it, so we’ll just do it.”

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