Downsizing in Germany leaves Darmstadt feeling deserted
European edition, Sunday, September 23, 2007
When he deployed to Iraq last year, Army Sgt. Matthew Hunt left a bustling military community.
A lot has changed since then, now that more than half of U.S. Army Garrison Darmstadt’s residents and employees are gone.
“It seems like a ghost town,” said Hunt, of the 105th Military Intelligence Battalion, who returned this month.
In August 2006, about 8,500 soldiers, family members, civilians and retirees lived and worked at USAG Darmstadt. As of last month’s count, only 3,200 remained, according to base officials.
“It’s a lot different. There’s not much left,” he said.
His family, who went back to their hometown of Spokane, Wash., when he went downrange, left before the exodus started.
Darmstadt is one three garrisons in Germany being inactivated in 2008 as part of the Army’s transformation over the next few years to consolidate operations in Europe. The German government eventually will assume ownership of the bases.
Signs of the void abound. Parking lots are empty, offices are being cleaned out and buildings locked up. Many services and facilities have changed their hours because of the dwindling population, while others already have shut down.
Officials with garrison command, the Defense Commissary Agency and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service have said they are trying to keep as many things open as long as possible and will notify the community in advance of future closures expected throughout the year.
“It’s important that people know ahead of time what the impact is going to be. People count on these services and we don’t want anyone to be surprised,” said Ken White, a spokesman for Installation Management Command-Europe.
The lack of customers is driving many of the changes, but the dwindling work force also is taking a toll on base operations.
At the commissary, business is down about 20 percent. In August, sales fell to $337,176, compared to about $428,000 that month last year, said Alvin Lim, store director.
Come January, shoppers likely won’t find the same variety of products at the store as stock is adjusted based on sales, or lack thereof.
“We’re going to keep everything the same through holidays. It’s our best sales, plus we don’t want to cut any items off for our customers during this time,” Lim said.
Meanwhile, three of the six military wives and five of the six high school students who worked at the commissary have quit in recent months as soldiers transfer out of Darmstadt.
It’s the same story at the fitness centers at Cambrai-Fritsch Kasern and Kelley Barracks. The loss of employees has dramatically affected service.
“The hardest part of losing my staff is having to reduce the programs,” said Rogelio Feliciano, sports and fitness director. “We couldn’t keep the gym at Kelley Barracks open if it weren’t for the soldiers who are running it now.”
He just hired a personal trainer, is looking to hire a martial-arts instructor and is planning to start a spinning class soon. But, for the most part, exercises classes have been canceled, and the hours reducedat Kelley Barracks reduced.
In addition, the annual Columbus Day basketball tournament will not take place this year, “because we just don’t have the staff,” Feliciano said.
Yet, even as Darmstadt is drawing down, some new personnel are arriving.
Human resource specialist John Ford felt lucky when he found a position in ID Services last month after leaving Giessen, where most of the military community has already closed.
Still, Ford is worried about what he’ll do as Darmstadt follows suit.
“You always wonder what your next step is and where you’re going to be in a year,” said Ford, 33, said. “You try to plan so when it closes you can have your future secure.”
Moreover, working in a community in the process of closing up is a bit depressing, he said.
“It stinks because you don’t get to see (the base) as it was,; you get to see it on its way down,” Ford said.
But others, such as Sgt. Robert DeMusz, say the fewer people, the better.
It means less waiting at the clinic, no lines at stores and just a sense of "peace and quiet," he said. Except for a yearlong tour in Iraq, DeMusz, of the 66th Military Intelligence Group, has been in Darmstadt for seven years.
“It’s not the same by any means,” he said. “But it’s kinda nice. I like it, not like the hustle and bustle at other bases.”