German Air force operations leaving Fort Bliss
By DAVID BURGE | El Paso Times, Texas | Published: March 11, 2013
FORT BLISS, Texas — The German Air Force has had a presence at Fort Bliss for nearly 60 years, but that relationship is coming to an end.
The German Air Force Command for the United States and Canada will close at Fort Bliss on Sept. 30, and its operations will be taken to Holloman Air Force Base, said Col. Heinz-Josef Ferkinghoff, who is in charge of the command unit.
Fort Bliss will take a second hit later this decade.
The other part of the German Air Force's local presence, its Air Defense Center, will move to Germany in the next three to five years, its commander Lt. Col. Ingo Kresser said.
Both moves are part of a major reorganization of the German military, Ferkinghoff said.
The command unit has about 40 airmen and civilian employees at Fort Bliss. The school has about 150 airmen and civilian employees stationed here. About 500 students attend various courses at the school each year.
The German Air Force has been at Fort Bliss since 1956, just 11 years after the end of World War II.
"The U.S. has been our largest ally," Ferkinghoff said. "It was natural to have that cooperative relationship. That's how it started."
But during the Base Realignment and Closure process — which brought about Fort Bliss' most recent transformation — the seeds for these moves were sown, Ferkinghoff said.
The U.S. Army's Air Defense Artillery School moved to Fort Sill, Okla., in 2009 and the 1st Armored Division moved from Germany to Fort Bliss in 2011.
Fort Bliss underwent one of the largest expansions of a U.S. military base since World War II and saw its soldier population explode from about 9,000 in 2005 to more than 33,000 now.
But that also severed the long-standing and deep history of Fort Bliss being primarily an air-defense installation.
"That's where we lost the connection," Ferkinghoff said.
The German Air Force has had a long history of community involvement at Fort Bliss, in El Paso and even across the border in Mexico.
The German Air Force's two charitable foundations have been helping people in need on both sides of the border for decades.
Aid for the Needy celebrated its 40th anniversary and German Helping Hands its 30th year during the German Air Force's recent Spring Bazaar.
The Germans have also organized an Oktoberfest celebration which annually brings several thousand revelers out to Fort Bliss to experience German culture, music and of course, its famous beer.
This fall's Oktoberfest will be the last organized by the German Air Force, the two German commanders said.
Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, Fort Bliss and 1st Armored Division commander, said it's sad news for Fort Bliss that the German Air Force is leaving.
"As a kid growing up in El Paso, I had several schoolmates whose fathers were in the German Luftwaffe," Pittard said in an emailed statement. "El Paso and Fort Bliss have had a thriving German-American community for decades.
"The German Air Force contingent has always been a big part of the Team Bliss community, from the German Spring Bazaar to the German-American 8k Night Run and of course, the Oktoberfest," Pittard continued.
Kresser said the move is hard on airmen like himself. Kresser is the son of a German one-star general and spent 5å years of his youth here in El Paso.
The younger Kresser attended Wainwright Elementary School — since closed — and Burges High School.
This is also the third time he has been stationed at Fort Bliss. He took over command at the air defense school in October 2012.
"Personally, of course, we are sad," Kresser said. "But we have to face facts of our restructuring and realignment."
But Germany also remains committed to having strong ties to and a continued military presence in the United States, he added.
The German Air Force, for instance, has its Flying Training Center at Holloman and about 500 airmen and civilians stationed there, making this its largest presence in the United States, Ferkinghoff said. The Germans are looking at expanding that footprint to possibly about 800 people in the future, he added.
Most of the German air-defense school personnel will eventually go home to Germany but a handful will go to Fort Sill, Kresser said. There, the German Air Force will expand its presence from about four airmen to about 20.
They will serve in a training and liaison role and will be integrated into Fort Sill's Fires Center for Excellence, Kresser said.
A binational U.S.-German officer course on the Patriot air-defense system is also being created at Fort Sill, Kresser added.
"That's something new and exciting," he said.
Ferkinghoff, meanwhile, said he also feels a little sad about the impending moves, noting that he will be the 16th and final commander of the German Air Force Command at Fort Bliss.
"Whenever anyone talked about the German Air Force in the United States, the first thing they thought about was El Paso," he said.