Money, memories key factors as many Germans bemoan withdrawal plan
August 18, 2004
WIESBADEN, Germany — As the lord mayor of this historic German city addressed reporters Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of his constituents could be heard in the plaza below having a good wine or two.
President Bush’s proposal to withdraw tens of thousands of troops from Europe over the next decade isn’t sitting well with the German populace. Money and good memories are two of the reasons why many Germans are a bit apprehensive about the whole issue.
The residents of Wiesbaden have good reason to worry: It’s the home base of the legendary 1st Armored Division, and about 12,000 Americans annually pump millions of dollars into the local economy. They also genuinely like Americans, often referring to them as “our good neighbors.”
“We do not believe the Americans will give up Wiesbaden,” Lord Mayor Hildebrand Diehl said through an interpreter after his news conference.
As he went on to explain his optimism, sounds and smells from the annual wine festival wafted up from the cobblestone streets below. Several GIs in civvies — spotted earlier — contributed to the atmosphere.
“If the 1st Armored Division does leave Wiesbaden,” Diehl said, “other units or troops might come” to take their place.
The U.S. Army is spending about $45 million on various improvement projects, he said. And, perhaps more importantly, the military airfield on the outskirts of town is not something the Americans can easily replicate, at least not in Germany, he added.
However, while Diehl is feeling good about his city’s chances, officials in other German cities aren’t so confident.
“We’ve had American soldiers in Büdingen for 60 years,” Mayor Erich Spamer said. The decision “is a break” from the past, he added, “I’m not happy about it.”
In German towns with U.S. military bases, talk of closures and empty caserns is nothing new. Those that host 1st AD and 1st Infantry Division units have been dealing with this issue for months, if not years.
Among the communities contacted, not one seemed eager to see the troops go.
Ole Kruse, a spokesman for the district government in Würzburg, where the 1st Infantry Division is headquartered, said local leaders had been hoping for more specifics. The Würzburg district is home to three bases: Leighton Barracks, home of the 1st ID; Faulenberg Casern, headquarters of the 98th Area Support Group; and Giebelstadt Army Airfield, where the 12th Aviation Brigade and the 69th Air Defense Artillery are located.
“It’s important that we really know definitely how the plans are, so we can adapt to the situation,” Kruse said.
Kruse added that the district government has not made plans for the military sites, which the U.S. military, technically speaking, leases from the German government. There are some ideas, Kruse noted, but he emphasized that no one wants the U.S. Army to leave.
“We hope that as many soldiers as possible will stay, if they can,” Kruse said. “The Americans here in Würzburg have a very long tradition. They are part of our community.”
The picture is somewhat clearer for communities that host U.S. Air Force bases.
England, for example, is home to about 12,000 active-duty military members, spread across about 10 installations. The largest of them — RAF Mildenhall, home of the 100th Air Refueling Wing, and RAF Lakenheath, home of the 48th Fighter Wing — are in the rural region of eastern England.
If the bases leave, the regional employment picture would be jumbled, but the local government has indicated in the past that it would try to attract replacement jobs.
On the other hand, Pentagon officials have said the military community around Ramstein Air Base, Germany, home to 44,000 servicemembers, family members and civilians will remain a crucial logistics and medical hub.
The community, located near the city of Kaiserslautern, is host to the largest number of Americans outside the United States.
The status of the area’s Army population — about 4,800 troops and 6,500 dependents — hasn’t been specified. A spokesman for the 21st Theater Support Command, which provides logistical support to the U.S. European Command, on Monday referred questions about potential troop realignments to the Pentagon.
While Kaiserslautern is in no way typical, given its size, a look at the economic side of the ledger reveals, at least in part, what’s at stake.
In fiscal 2003, the Kaiserslautern military community pumped nearly $1.29 billion into the area’s economy, according to an annual economic impact report released in February.
The Kaiserslautern military community includes five Air Force installations and 10 Army installations.
The status of other bases within U.S. Air Forces in Europe, which has five main installations in Europe, is unclear.
Prior news reports have indicated that fighter wings in Germany and England may be moved. USAFE spokeswoman 1st Lt. Toni Tones noted, however, the Air Force has significantly drawn down its numbers in the past decade and there is little more room to cut.
In the coming months and years, local officials in Germany and England will no doubt make such claims.
In Giessen, Germany, which has already been identified for closure, city officials view the recent announcement as a second chance to change minds.
As mayoral spokesman Christoph Zörb spoke of the prospect of getting a reprieve for Giessen, he invoked a phrase by baseball great Yogi Berra, which shows just how deep the ties are in Europe.
“We won’t give up,” Zörb said. “It’s not over until it’s over.”
Marni McEntee, Ron Jensen and Steve Liewer contributed to this report.
Americans' thoughts on leaving
Stars and Stripes asks: "What do you think about the planned massive pullout of troops in Europe?’
"Well, you know they always talk about no threat. There is always a threat. Look where we are now. I think it is political, why they are pulling them out." — Bob Crockett, Wiesbaden, Germany
"We’ve got ground here. It probably would be best that we stayed here." — Spc. John Harris, Tennessee National Guard
"I think they should take most of them out. Everywhere you go, you see U.S. bases." — Pfc. Kenneth Ventris, Heidelberg, Germany
"They move you around from left to right. They have invested a lot of money here and then leave. But I am sure someone is calling the shots and doing the right thing." — Eddie Karakas, Wiesbaden, Germany
"It’s going to hit the economy hard here. It’s one of the benefits of being in the military, coming to Europe. Sorry to see it go." — Sgt. Nathan Lock, Hanau, Germany
"I know it would probably hurt the German economy if troops leave [Europe] because we have been here so long and they have grown dependent. But, it’s got to happen sometime." — Staff Sgt. Camisa Mitchell, Heidelberg, Germany
"The handwriting was on the wall that they were going to do it. They talked about it for years. I hope they don’t do it too fast. How are they going to transfer the families home? Will they have the infrastructure?" — Sgt. Maj. Edward Massey, Wiesbaden, Germany
"From a family standpoint, a lot of people will probably be happy. They’re still closer to what they call home and can see their relatives. I think moving the troops back would be beneficial." — Maj. Keith Stubbs, 16th Military Police Brigade
"Close down the bases and something happens. It is a destabilizing thing. If the Germans don’t want us, by all means we should leave. Maybe we have overstayed our welcome." — Jack Leverett, Bingen, Germany
"The people are already away from their families as it is. I like it here and the opportunity to live in Germany." — Lourdes Pennill, Heidelberg, Germany
It will be a while before it happens, but, yeah, if you want to. Really the troops don’t have to be here anymore. — Randall Bell, Wiesbaden, Germany
There would be a large decline in terrorist threats. A lot of the Germans would be happy; the country is overpopulated as it is. — Spc. Nicholaus Oswalt, Tennessee National Guard