Plan to withdraw U.S. forces from Iceland gets icy reception from base workers
Stars and Stripes March 18, 2006
RAF MILDENHALL, England — Sigurjon Hafsteinsson is mad. Not to mention worried about his financial future.
Days after the U.S. government announced plans to withdraw its military forces from Iceland, Hafsteinsson is one of nearly 900 locals employed by the American military who wonder about their job prospects.
“What we are mostly concerned about is that it was such a surprise,” Hafsteinsson said. “They said there were going to be ongoing discussions.”
On Thursday, U.S. officials informed Icelandic officials about the plan to withdraw its forces, which make up the only military presence in the country.
The decision affects around 3,000 U.S. military members, dependents and civilian employees at Naval Air Station Keflavik, home to a helicopter rescue squadron, a hospital, various support units and a rotating quartet of fighter jets from England.
The move has left a raft of unanswered questions for both Americans and Icelandic locals who live in, work at or depend on the northern outpost. A lack of official information has only exacerbated the problem.
“Nobody let us know nothing,” Hafsteinsson said. “They are just telling us that they are leaving and that we are going to be unemployed. It’s just not the right way to do it.”
Fridthor Eydal, spokesman for the U.S. military contingent in the country, the Icelandic Defense Force, said no specific decisions have been made on exactly who would go, or when.
Eydal confirmed that “the fighter unit and the helicopter rescue unit will be withdrawn,” before October, but said potential talks between the two governments about the final status of the base have prevented the announcement of specifics.
The fighters that patrol the skies above Iceland are based out of the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath, England. Those planes will cease to rotate into Iceland, according to 48th spokeswoman Capt. Beth Horine.
The impact of the drawdown will fall on the more than 700 members of the Air Force’s 85th Group and 540 Navy personnel at NAS Keflavik, plus the nearly 100 U.S. employees and around 1,700 family members.
Eyedal said he did not have a breakdown of how many personnel in some affected units would be moved, such as the 56th Rescue Squadron, home unit of the station’s rescue helicopters.
Those helicopters, since their arrival in the early 1970s, have helped save the lives of about 310 people in the icy waters and rugged terrain around the base, according to Eydal.
The base could not say how many of the 592 local hires or 250 Icelandic contract workers would be retained after the withdrawal, leaving some employees to fear the worst: a total shutdown and across-the-board firings.
“I think it will be a catastrophe,” said Gudbrandur Einarssor, chairman of a Keflavik trade and office workers union with about 120 workers on the U.S. base.
Keflavik, a community of about 11,000 people, can’t accommodate nearly 900 unemployed workers on such short notice, he said.
“It was a complete surprise,” Einarssor said of the American announcement. “We thought that it would be coming, but not this fast.”
Given two years’ notice, the community might have been able to find work for such a large number of people, but six months is not enough, he said.
“They will not have any work when they come back to town,” Einarssor said of his workers.