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German towns worry about U.S. troop pullout

Soldiers of the United States Army's V Corps at the Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg, Germany.
Soldiers of the United States Army's V Corps at the Campbell Barracks in Heidelberg, Germany.Michael Probst / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

In the days since President Bush announced the major troop realignment that will drastically alter U.S. military strategy accross the globe and transplant the approximately 70,000 troops currently based in Europe and Asia to new strategic locations, there has been widespread outcry from German communities that have hosted U.S. bases for decades.

The restructuring will not go into effect until 2006 and exact details on the changes have been scarce, but front-page stories on the pullout have filled Germany's leading newspapers.

"The Americans are leaving, fear is coming,” read a headline in Germany's tabloid newspaper Bild, reflecting concerns of many German communities.

But, General Charles F. Wald, Deputy Commander of the U.S. European Command, has reassured allies that the details of the restructuring are still to be determined.

"The largest adjustment will be with the U.S. Army in Europe, but who they are and where they go is still in discussion and negotiation," Wald told NBC News.

Close ties built over years
Many small communities in Germany have adjusted to the U.S. military presence with their infrastructure and economy over the years. For example, German car dealers set up businesses outside U.S. bases, and other retailers work as contractors on bases and sell local items in the U.S. shopping facilities.

"The loss of several hundred jobs for civilian employees is painful for the region," said Markus Gilbert from the local chamber of commerce in Giessen-Friedberg, where units of the 1st Armored Division are stationed.

According to the German labor union Verdi, the realignment of U.S. forces could endanger tens of thousands of jobs in a country that is already battling with high unemployment. In addition, regional governments fear financial losses in the retail and housing sector.

Even though political and military leaders have avoided naming U.S. divisions and U.S. base locations that will be affected, the re-deployment of the US Army's 1st Armored Division and 1st Infantry Division has been discussed in public.

According to the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper, the U.S. Army is planning to close three of its five Giessen facilities, deploying more than 1,000 1st Armored Division soldiers and their families.

"This does not come as a surprise, we have known about the plans since May 2003," said Christoph Zoerb, the spokesman for the city of Giessen. "This will not lead to an economic exodus in our region, but we are very sad that the Americans are leaving, they are fully integrated and have become part of our society.”

Even when the soldiers returned from their mission in Iraq, the city organized homecoming ceremonies for the Americans. And, Zoerb and his colleagues will not easily accept the U.S. government's decision.

"We will increase our lobbying efforts and openly call for a re-evaluation of the withdrawal plans," said Zoerb.

Since fall of the Berlin wall, changes afoot
U.S. troops were based in large numbers in Germany during the Cold War, but since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of military threat from the East Bloc, the U.S. military has gradually reduced its size in the country.

And, even though many small communities in Germany, like Giessen and Friedberg, are worried about the aftermath of the pull-out, many former base locations prove that there is life after.

In Wiesbaden, where the headquarters of the 1st Armored Division is located, only 10,000 Americans -- compared to once 30,000 US troops -- are still left. Large former U.S. compounds like Camp Lindsey and Camp Pieri were turned into modern housing areas and office space for local businesses.

Despite the criticism from many German officials, who say that the cleanup and re-construction process after handovers of U.S. facilities to local governments is timely and costly, there are many examples for successful conversions.

For the past five years, a former U.S. airfield in Hahn has been profitably operating as a civilian airport, from where low-budget airlines service several European destinations.  Another former U.S. air base in Zweibrücken now functions as a business park, hosting multi-media firms, cinemas, and a factory outlet.

"It is very hard for some people, as they become very comfortable with the status quo, but from a military perspective, we are ready to move on," said Wald.

Re-alignment inevitable
For U.S. military leaders the re-alignment process is inevitable.

"There is a new threat, it is asymmetrical and it takes a different type of military to respond -- it takes new tactics, training and procedures," Wald said, referring to the global threat of the terrorism.

In the future, the U.S. military is planning to rely more on so called forward operating sites -- smaller, more flexible staging posts on the periphery of NATO or even outside the territory of the alliance.

These temporary facilities -- often former communist bloc bases -- could be used for strategic airlift or simply as re-fueling points, like Romanian air base Costanta, which was a staging area for special operations missions during the Iraq war.

"We are looking for a temporary fashion of bases, without the major infrastructure that is needed to support families," Wald added.

Continued presence
Yet, military officials have repeatedly stressed that facilities like the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which has been regularly treating wounded U.S. soldiers, airmen and Marines from Iraq, and Ramstein Air Base in southwestern Germany will not be effected.

Ramstein Air Base, for example, is part of a military community that hosts nearly 42,000 troops, family members and DoD civilians, and is significant as a strategic airlift hub. Logistical support for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan has been mainly coming from the Ramstein base.

The installation has actually been expanding. A new passenger and a new freight terminal were finished recently. The U.S. government is investing $375 million for construction on base and re-location of units from its Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, which is being shut down and moved to Ramstein and the Spangdahlem Air Force Base.

The German locals in the region have quietly adjusted to the increase in air traffic and do not complain about the noise that the large freight planes are generating, as they know what could be at stake. Ramstein Air Base is by far the largest employer in the region, with more than 6,000 German civilian workers.

"In the end, it will probably not be as bad as it sounds and, we are still committed to Europe," said Wald.