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At a border camp in the German town of Hof, a stunned Maj. Mark Hertling watched as East met West and the war he spent his young career preparing for was disappearing before his eyes.

“We were there the night the Trabants started coming across the border and a lot of people were confused about what to do,” recalled Hertling, who in November 1989 was an officer with the 1st Armored Division. “I was like holy crap, this is a new age.”

Days later, Hertling was back at his home station in Ansbach, Germany, where he met up with a buddy for beers at a local festival. They reflected on the ramifications of the Berlin Wall’s fall.

“We’re going to be the first generation of soldiers that will get to 20 years without fighting a war other than the Cold War,” Hertling told his buddy at the time. “The Soviets are dead. The Cold War is over. There’s no one to fight. Peace is going to break out the world over.”

When the Berlin Wall collapsed 25 years ago today, such sentiments were held far and wide as a wave of jubilation swept Germany and the rest of Europe. There was even hope that a new, peaceful world order would emerge. But such optimism proved short-lived.

Months later, Hertling and other U.S. troops were gearing up for Operation Desert Storm, America’s first war with Iraq that would become a prelude to more fighting to come. After that, Yugoslavia broke apart, unleashing a wave of bloodshed in the Balkans and an intervention in 1995 by tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops. Then came the war in Afghanistan and another war in Iraq.

Still, in the 25 years since the fall of the Wall few feared a return to Cold War-style confrontation with Russia. That all changed this year when Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and gave support to pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

If a return to Cold War-caliber tension still seems a stretch, the chill between Moscow and the West harkens back to an earlier time, not unlike like the years leading up to the Wall’s collapse.

Peace in Europe can no longer be taken for granted, U.S. and NATO military officials now argue, as the West pushes ahead with plans to establish new “staging bases” across eastern Europe to counter potential Russian aggression.

“We have changed our focus and EUCOM is part of that,” Dan Fitzpatrick, the U.S. European Command historian, told Stars and Stripes. “There’s a reason why we are here in Europe and now you are seeing it, with Russia, with ISIL (the Islamic State group) to the south right on NATO’s border. We aren’t here to protect Germany any longer, we are here to protect the interests of the United States.”

But in the relaxed aftermath following the collapse of the Wall, which anticipated the disintegration of the Soviet Union two years later, the military faced an identity crisis in Europe.

“We were basically looking for a mission,” said Fitzpatrick.

The military’s downsizing in Europe was sharp and steady — from about 310,000 personnel at the time of the Wall’s collapse to roughly 80,000 today. And less than a year ago, that downward trajectory seemed likely to continue as the Pentagon struggled to explain to a skeptical American population why U.S. troops were still stationed in a rich and secure Europe.

Demands from Congress that the U.S. cut back deeper in Europe grew louder and more frequent. Now, however, such calls out of Congress appear to have muted in the face of an increasingly unpredictable Russia led by Vladimir Putin.Preparing for the worst During the Cold War, many of the U.S. troops in Europe were positioned at strategic spots along the fault lines of eastern and western Germany, guarding against a massive Soviet land invasion. They were prepared for the worst.

“If you were a fire-support officer, you had 13 seconds once you had contact. That’s it. These were die-in-place positions,” said Fitzpatrick, himself a former fire-support officer. If anything, such fears were understated.

Historians now say that top-secret Warsaw Pact battle plans in the 1970s and early 80s called for massive nuclear strikes against multiple cities in West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, as well as tactical nuclear attacks on concentrations of opposing forces. France and Britain, both nuclear armed nations, were to be spared, but Soviet forces — 420,000-strong in East Germany and Czechoslovakia — would still sweep everything before them and reach the Rhine within seven to eight days, according to the plans made public after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact.

During the height of the Cold War, the U.S. military presence in Europe was not only enormous, it was a front-line deterrent in the most powerful sense. In those days, tactical nuclear weapons could be attached to field artillery. It took time for the U.S. to build up its presence in Europe, which dwindled after World War II. In the early 1950s, with the Cold War already at a fever pitch, the force levels on the Continent were less than 100,000, on a par with the force of today.

What prompted the surge of troops into Europe was the Korean War and lessons learned from North Korea’s lightning invasion into the south. Something like that could happen in Europe, too, officials feared at the time. “That really changed American policy,” said Fitzpatrick “In Europe, you had 4.5 million Russians in occupied areas, and we had nothing here to stop them.”

From June 1950 to 1953, the U.S. force in Europe tripled in size, with roughly 300,000 personnel positioned across the Continent, accompanied by all the machines of war — fighter planes, tanks, artillery and nuclear weapons. “We stayed for 50 years and when 1989 come around, it was a feeling of, ‘Is this really over?’ ” Fitzpatrick said.

Hertling, who would go on to lead combat troops in Iraq and would eventually take command of U.S. Army Europe, first arrived in Germany in 1975 as a second lieutenant fresh out of West Point. In those days, families had to keep at least a half tank of gas in their cars in case war broke out. Noncombatant Evacuation Operation packets, which included all the travel essentials you might need in an emergency, were kept in the glove compartment.

When Hertling returned as a major in 1988, there was a sense that change was coming. It was the early days of glasnost, a Soviet policy that eased censorship and restrictions on political activity.

But U.S. troops still conducted border patrols. Family evacuation plans were still part of force-protection measures in place. And Moscow remained the singular focus for war planners.

“We still had the Russian threat, and we were doing war plans against the Soviets,” Hertling said.

“But by the time I left that tour, we went through Wall coming down, the peace process, the beginning of planning drawdowns,” said Hertling, who retired in 2012 as a lieutenant general and now works as an executive in the health care industry.Force of today Today, the military presence is just a shell of its former self, but it’s still lethal.

In the 1980s the U.S. military maintained up to 350,000 troops in Europe, most in West Germany. Now, there are only two Army brigades. Today, the military’s role in Europe is as much about logistics as it is firepower. There are combatant command headquarters, training grounds to partner with allies and air bases like Ramstein Air Base in Germany that have as much to do with projecting power into the Middle East and Africa as they do deterring aggression in Europe.

A year ago, the U.S. military’s main argument for a forward presence in Europe was geography — the Continent was an essential platform to achieve strategic aims in the broader region. That argument often seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Hertling, during his time as USAREUR commander from 2011-2012, often found himself at odds with lawmakers eager that get troops to their home district.

During one meeting with a Colorado congressman, Hertling explained why his soldiers needed to be forward positioned in Europe. There, Hertling said, the troops conducted a range of missions, including gathering military intelligence, training allies in eastern Europe, sending forces into Afghanistan and supporting missions in Africa.

“He (the congressman) was saying that they can move to his district instead and he wasn’t kidding around,” said Hertling, who declined to publicly name the lawmaker. “I asked him: ‘Mr. Congressman, why is it so important to move these people to your state and not do their mission in Europe?’

“He said: ‘I’d rather have them buy pizza in Colorado than schnitzel in Germany.’ He told me I live in the Cold War, thinking Russia is still coming across that border, and that I just don’t understand.”

It’s hard to predict the future size and shape of the military presence in Europe. Will the current crisis with Russia reinforce the need for a forward presence or will a looming budget crunch force more cuts?

Hertling said he hopes the current crisis serves as a reminder that the next conflict can’t be predicted. But he isn’t optimistic.

“The sequestration train continues to move down the track. We have a military that is increasingly stretched, less well-resourced and a budget plan based on drawdown in Afghanistan, but not new requirements. We’re headed for some really tough times.”

However, if there is a lesson of the Cold War, it is the value of maintaining the military alliances that grew out of it, Hertling said.

“When we next go to war, no matter what kind of war it is or where it is, we are never going to do it alone. So you can’t just flip the switch when war sounds. You have to have that relationship,” he said. “The forward stationing of these forces, working with other countries to build alliances stronger than a single country needs to be a continuing process and can’t just be when something bad happens like Russia crossing into Ukraine’s border.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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