German locals worry about impact of withdrawing US soldiers

By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 6, 2012

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — Through 100 years, two world wars and three generations, the Hotel Böhm has catered to soldiers and their families in the center of this small Bavarian town.

Owner Heinrich Böhm hopes it can survive the next chapter. One of two brigades stationed at the nearby U.S. Army post is expected to leave, taking some 3,800 soldiers, their family members and a chunk of Böhm’s customer base with it.

“When there are no soldiers, there is no business,” Böhm said flatly.

He isn’t the only one concerned. The expected departures of brigades from Grafenwöhr and an Army post in Baumholder are unsettling German politicians, business owners and workers in both regions. At stake, they say, are millions of dollars injected into local economies, as well as a 67-year-old German-American partnership.

The Defense Department announced last month that it would remove two of the four U.S. combat brigades stationed in Europe as part of a larger military restructuring that reflects new strategic priorities and lower budget projections. Although the brigades were not named, defense officials identified both as heavy combat brigades, a designation that fits only the infantry brigades in Grafenwöhr and Baumholder, the 172nd and 170th, respectively.

Neither post will close, U.S. Army Europe officials have emphasized. Both are designated “enduring” communities. Grafenwöhr is home to the Army’s largest training facility in Europe. Baumholder, due to its proximity to Ramstein Air Base, about 30 miles, could host logistics units. Both also are expected to receive training rotations of U.S.-stationed units.

However, the Army has yet to detail the size and makeup of those units, as well as the schedule of brigade departures, and is unlikely to do so until after President Barack Obama presents the 2013 budget on Feb. 13.

Some Germans, especially those who rely on Americans for business, worry about the potential impact of the changes nonetheless. The region around Grafenwöhr is heavily invested in the post, which has constructed $1 billion in new buildings in the past 10 years, including new housing and barracks, a dining facility and a new post exchange.

Elfriede Lang, 51, a project coordinator in the garrison’s public works department, said workers are concerned that more soldiers could leave the post, given the U.S. government’s budget pressures.

“We are afraid of the one brigade (leaving), but we think in the future more soldiers will leave,” she said. “That’s what we are afraid of.”

More than 2,400 Germans are currently employed by the U.S. military in Grafenwöhr, according to the post Works Council chairman, Klaus Lehl. The garrison estimates its annual economic impact in the surrounding area exceeds 515 million euros (roughly $676 million).

A chunk of that is rent paid for off-post housing, which the garrison has relied on in recent years during a housing crunch on post. The garrison currently pays for 2,246 private rentals and has leased 1,182 homes, according to garrison officials. It is planning or developing another 147 build-to-lease homes in outlying communities.

Meanwhile, the garrison has a 10-year lease on the Netzaberg housing community, an 830-home development in the neighboring town of Eschenbach.

As more Americans have moved off post, nearby communities have received help from the Bavarian government to offset the impact to infrastructure. Vilseck, the community closest to the Grafenwöhr garrison’s other brigade, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment, receives 2 million euros annually, according to its mayor, Hans-Martin Schertl.

Schertl believes the communities affected by the departure of the 172nd should receive economic aid from the German government.

“If it’s not possible to bring new soldiers, and new families, there will be problems,” he said. “What will be (the situation) with soldier houses? What will be with the gasthauses, taxi drivers and much more?”

Schertl and other mayors in the region have been meeting to discuss the coming changes in Grafenwöhr. An initial meeting with USAREUR commander Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling and command staff from Grafenwöhr in late January was short on specifics but long on reassurances, German officials indicated.

In a meeting the next day, local mayors and a representative of the German parliament’s lower house, the Bundestag, discussed their concerns and then spoke to the press. They talked about jobs, potential losses from rental contracts and the impact of fewer students in local schools. They flipped through a copy of a Defense Department white paper outlining coming changes.

Werner Schieder, the Bundestag representative, said Bavarian officials believed as many as 3,000 soldiers from remnant units at garrisons in Bamberg and Schweinfurt — both slated for closure — would eventually come to Grafenwöhr, filling some of the open spaces.

A USAREUR spokesman couldn’t confirm that, but he pointed to USAREUR’s long-held plans, which call for consolidation onto its “enduring communities,” one of which is Grafenwöhr. Neither Bamberg nor Schweinfurt is an enduring community.

Some officials have argued the communities should focus on developing other job sectors in the area.

Other questions surround the incoming rotational forces and whether they can match the economic heft of outgoing soldiers. The soldiers are expected to arrive without family members, a significant consideration for business owners.

American Ed Leiato, 63, owner of the popular Ed’s Bar in Grafenwöhr, wondered if change could usher in a return to the “old days,” when Europe was an unaccompanied tour.

“The problem then is, how long will the (rotational) troops be here, and do they have time to come off post?” he said.

Nicholas Idewa, 62, a Kenyan-born German resident who sells African art inside several military post exchanges in Europe, said many of his customers buy as families. Any change to the number of families in Grafenwöhr would affect his business, he said.

“You can see most of the people when they come here, they say, ‘Let me talk to my husband (before buying), let me talk to my wife.’ Singles, they can’t buy anything.”

In Vilseck, tattoo artist Johnny Varga, 40, estimated Americans account for 90 percent of his business. His wife, Veronika Varga, 36, owner of a dog grooming salon next door, figures half of her clients are Americans. Fewer families and more single soldiers could affect both businesses, Veronika Varga speculated.

“There might be fewer customers here, but in the tattoo shop more,” she said.

Change has been a constant in the 100-plus-year military history of Grafenwöhr, although much of that change has been growth. Carved out of swamp and woods in the early 20th century, it first found use by the Bavarian Army in 1910. German soldiers trained for two world wars on the post before the Americans arrived in 1945.

The garrison now hosts the 7th U.S. Army Joint Multinational Training Command, which trains U.S. and multinational soldiers from across Europe. The garrison’s current population is more than 39,000 individuals, 10,000 of them soldiers.

Gerald Morgenstern, a lifelong Grafenwöhr resident, and the author of a history book on the training area, said town and post must believe in each other to be successful.

“I think it’s important for the American soldiers that they know where they stay, where they live, where their families are,” Morgenstern said. “That’s important. And I think it’s also important for the surroundings of Grafenwöhr — all the friends and the neighbors — that they know they have a garrison partner.”


Veronika Varga, right, and her sister, Agnes Roth, sit in the lobby of Varga's dog grooming business in Vilseck. Varga says Americans now represent 50 percent of her business, and she wonders how any change on post might affect her business.


comments Join the conversation and share your voice!  

from around the web