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(Michael Abrams / S&S)

For the U.S. Army, it’s big, the first major forces realignment in 60 years. For Germany, it’s big — a nearly two-thirds reduction in a population that rented apartments, bought cuckoo clocks and drank a lot of beer.

But for individual soldiers within U.S. Army Europe, Army transformation is pretty much business as usual, officials say.

“If you’re envisioning 12,000 soldiers and their families getting on planes and arriving in Fort Riley, Kansas — that’s not how it’s going to take place,” said Maj. Bill Coppernoll, spokesman for the 1st Infantry Division, which, as the first of USAREUR’s divisions to move is at the vanguard of the transformation. “It’s not like a deployment. The Army is a big place. We move people all the time.”

Although the transformation plan — which will send the 1st Infantry and 1st Armored divisions back to the U.S., inactivate some units and convert others — calls for 62,000 U.S. troops stationed in Europe to become 25,000 within the next four years, the Army is shrinking that force through natural processes, not preparing for a mass exodus.

“Although we talk about moving units, we’re really talking about moving individuals,” said Gen. David McKiernan, U.S. Army Europe commander. “Probably only 10 percent of them will actually move back to the U.S. (with their units).

“The rest of them — we’ll either use that skill set in Europe or their unit will be deactivated,” he said.

The 1st ID, in the middle of its transformation process that is scheduled to end with leaving Würzburg this summer for Fort Riley — has already seen some 35 percent of its Germany soldiers dispersed, Coppernoll said.

“I can tell you it’s in the hundreds, not thousands, of soldiers that will return from Germany to Fort Riley, Kan.,” he said. “It’s not like one day they’re running with 100 percent of people and the next day they’re gone. Soldiers do what soldiers do.”

They have either left the Army, moved to another duty station or been reassigned, Coppernoll said.

The 1st ID actually underwent a significant drawdown before the news even came out that they were supposed to do so. That happened when the division returned nearly a year ago from Iraq and a stop-loss, stop-move order was lifted. Personnel actions that had been on hold happened all at once. Soldiers got out of the Army. Soldiers went to new assignments.

“That was our first big group that went away,” Coppernoll said.

The next big group happened after a July announcement that said the 1st ID would be gone from Germany by October 2006, along with a list of units that were to inactivate or convert to something different. After that, Coppernoll said, “We stopped receiving replacements.”

The 4th Battalion, 3rd Air Defense Artillery Regiment, with some 500 soldiers, learned when in Iraq that the unit was to be inactivated. They returned in February, stop-loss was lifted in May, and by June the unit had lost 40 percent of its soldiers, Coppernoll said. By July, 55 percent had disappeared, and by August, 65 percent.

Among them were 40 who went to the 69th Air Defense Artillery Brigade in Giebelstadt and about 200 whose military jobs, along with their unit, were being done away with. Many of them headed off to training to learn new specialties, Coppernoll said.

The unit inactivated in September, with 25 people left. Those 25, Coppernoll said, became members of the new Air Missile Defense Detachment of the 1st ID, and some of them will return, along with members of the division’s headquarters, to Fort Riley.

On average, inactivating units are now at about 60 percent strength, Coppernoll said. “I’d consider that on track.”

The 3rd Brigade Combat Team in Vilseck, also set to move to Fort Riley, has over the past several months gone from 3,500 troops to about 500 troops. What happened to the rest? PCS, ETS and reassignment, Coppernoll said.

One reassignment site was the 1st ID’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. That unit, although part of the 1st ID, is and will remain at full strength. That’s because it is not returning to the U.S. quite yet. It is returning to Iraq this spring.

“Some of [the reassigned soldiers] didn’t have much of an option, I’m sure,” Coppernoll said. “But in as many cases as possible, commanders really, seriously weighed the preferences of that soldier against the needs of the Army. It’s been a very difficult process.”

There have been hiccups along the way. Some families with Company A of the 121st Signal Battalion, for example, were given just a couple of months to move from Würzburg to Schweinfurt after the unit, part of an inactivating battalion, was reassigned to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team.

For them, battalion commander Lt. Col Jim Garrison said last fall, “The transformation happened fast, and for the families it was really fast.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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