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SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — It was supposed to be a grand gala, an open house with flight demonstrations to commemorate the base’s 60th anniversary.

But Pentagon budget constraints forced the 52nd Fighter Wing to scale back its celebration, limiting the audience to base personnel, their families and invited guests, while showcasing a smaller slice of its mission.

The crowd — walking among the static aircraft and vehicle displays and eating hot dogs and ribs as Justin Timberlake tunes blared from speakers — was sparse compared to the tens of thousands who streamed on to the flight line two years ago for the base’s last open house.

But the scaled back celebration didn’t diminish the significance of the 60-year milestone for some of the Americans and Germans with close ties to Spangdahlem. The U.S. military community in the rural Eifel region of western Germany has endured through the post-Cold War drawdown in Europe and has positioned itself over the last decade as a key strategic asset for U.S. Air Forces in Europe and NATO with its dual role supporting fighter aircraft and transiting heavy airlift.

“I have my heart for Spangdahlem — this is my life,” said Horst Esch, 64, a German flight instructor, whose earliest memories are tied to the military base near his home in Speicher.

Standing on the tarmac, where he earlier had flown in on a small French Ambassadeur plane on display at Friday’s event, he checked off the memories with a broad smile: seeing the base under construction as a young boy; getting a chance to visit the new installation, where he sat in an F-105 at an open house in the Sixties; attending the NCO club at 17, where live bands played. Today, he’s a German landlord who counts many Americans as his friends.

“I hope we can celebrate the 100 anniversary here,” he said.

How many more anniversaries Spangdahlem celebrates is anybody’s guess, but the 52nd Fighter Wing commander is optimistic the installation has a strong foothold on the continent.

“With all the money we’ve invested and the infrastructure and the capability and capacity that we have here … I’m confident it will remain here,” said Col. David Julazadeh.

The base is “a great launching pad for combat sorties and other places east and south,” he said. “I see no reason why you’d want to take away a place of this capability.”

Spangdahlem was among the six new air bases established after World War II west of the Rhine River to counter rising tensions in Europe during the early stages of the Cold War. The base was officially dedicated on May 10, 1953, and aircraft moved from Toul-Roieres, France, to stand up the 10th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, a collection of World War II-era bombers used for nighttime reconnaissance missions, said 52nd Fighter Wing historian Marshall Michel. The base at the time had 1,900 personnel.

Today, the base sprawls over 1,600 acres of former farming land and boasts a population of about 14,000, including civilians and family members.

Udo Stuermer, 54, who oversees construction projects on Spangdahlem completed by contractors, said Spangdahlem has grown by one-third since 1992, and more than 300 projects are currently under construction or design. The base is the region’s second largest employer, behind the major brewery in Bitburg.

Most people, he said, “can’t think of how it would be without the Americans because we are so used to them; since 60 years, is a long time, more than two generations,” he said.

But the U.S. military’s steadfast presence means more than just jobs and rent money. “We make friends, you stay in contact, it’s everything,” he said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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