Previous shifts show moves don't happen overnight
STUTTGART, Germany — When the Department of Defense began to whittle down the number of military bases across Europe and the globe more than a decade ago, the change did not occur overnight, military officials and former Department of Defense personnel said.
Soldiers returning to Germany from the first Persian Gulf War did not bypass their homes and families in Europe and suddenly end up in the United States. The decisions were not made so fast that troops didn’t have time to get their families and affairs in order.
“It caused a lot of anxiety,” said Hilde Patton, a civilian who works as a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Europe and V Corps. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Patton worked for VII Corps in Stuttgart, Germany. VII Corps disappeared after the drawdown.
No one yet is sure what the impact will be on Europe as the Department of Defense and U.S. European Command devise a military transformation plan. There is anxiety and uncertainty.
But the impact during the 1990s was not as severe as it could have been for those affected.
Equipment may have bypassed Germany after the first Gulf War when returning from Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia but the soldiers came home, Patton recalled.
“We’re not going to send soldiers somewhere and not get them back to their families,” Patton said. “We had a whole rear here [in Germany.]”
Retired Army Staff Sgt. Richard Werber, also with VII Corps at the time, recalled the anxiety.
“People were nervous but things went smoother than we would have thought,” said Werber, who retired and stayed in Stuttgart.
Yes, Werber said, units deployed to fight in the Gulf War were sent home, but they spent time in Germany making that final trip to the United States.
“They had time with their families. They were around to PCS [permanent change of station]. It wasn’t just get up and go,” said Werber, who had worked in the signal corps. “We had time to come back, pack up our things and say our goodbyes.”
Clearly transformation, in some way, is a done deal and there will be changes in the next few years, but, Patton cautioned, the shift won’t happen as quick as some people think.
After the first Gulf War, for example, some of the 1st Infantry Division moved from Germany to the United States. Military personnel had already announced the 1st ID would be heading back in fall 1990, months before the opening salvos in the war that began in January 1991. Talks about those shifts had already begun in 1989. So nearly all the 1st ID stopped back in Germany and then headed to the states where the division is now out of Fort Riley, Kan.
“The problem is there is an awful lot of coordination before anyone can think of making an official announcement,” Patton said. “That was a pretty large announcement,” she said, referring to the September 1990 unveiling by then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney on which bases would be closed.
She noted that more recently, in 2001, it took six months to move the 1st Armored Division from Bad Kreuznach to Wiesbaden.
Any shift in force structure will take a significant amount of planning, even after a permanent decision is made on what stays open and what closes.
“You don’t just take a carry-on and get on a plane,” she said.
During the drawdown, the military was feeling victorious. The Cold War had ended, and it was clear the U.S. military and its allies had been successful.
Still there were anxious moments. Despite the planned closings, many military personnel knew jobs were simply being slashed. Some officers and soldiers would lose their position or would be asked to take early retirement. “It caused a lot of anxiety, but now it’s a different time,” she said. “People keep asking us what’s going to happen … there’s nothing I can say. We don’t even know what type of plan there is so far.”
After the initial drawdown was announced in September 1990, a second, smaller reduction was announced in July 1991, which didn’t take affect until more than a year later, in September 1992.
To shut a base is not as easy as tossing on a couple chains and padlocks.
Decisions must to be made about locations, training areas and turning them over to the host-nation government.
After VII Corps left Stuttgart, for example, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service had just opened what had been touted as the largest exchange in Europe. As the military turned over facilities to the Germans, the brand-new structure was razed because the German government had no use for it.
The Army is now finalizing plans to shut 12 military installations in the Giessen area north of Frankfurt and relocate about 8,500 1st Armored Division soldiers and family members to Grafenwöhr in southeast Germany.
Patton said that shift took two years of planning.
The plans were made before talk of military transformation started, so it’s not known if the Grafenwöhr move is permanent. If the division does leave the area, Patton indicates it certainly won’t happen overnight.
“People just don’t back up with a rucksack and two duffel bags and go somewhere," she said.