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Bye, bye, GI: Deep impact for many Germans as US troops downsize

Hans Gritzbach, has had a connection to the American military installation near his home in Heidelberg, Germany for over 60 years.Carlo Angerer / NBC News

HEIDELBERG, Germany – For more than 26 years, Hans Gritzbach has been taking care of a little garden outside the building of the U.S. Army's European headquarters. 

The military installation has been part of Gritzbach's lifeblood for more than 60 years.

But when the leaves begin to fall in the autumn of 2013, the U.S. Army is scheduled to shut down its Campbell Barracks in Gritzbach's home city.

For the 86-year-old German, an era will come to an end with the U.S. troop pullout.

"I owe a lot to the Americans. They paved the way for what I am today," the widower said in a soft, choked voice.

From refugee to part of a community
With all of his belongings in no more than a cardboard box, Gritzbach arrived in Heidelberg in 1947, shortly after the end of World War II. He was a “displaced person” or refugee. His family was expelled from what used to be Czechoslovakia because they belonged to a minority group of ethnic Germans.

When he arrived in post-war Germany, the young man had no work training and no profession, but he was given a job with the U.S. forces in Heidelberg.

Over the course of his 39-year career as a civilian employee with the U.S. Army in Europe, he worked as a quartermaster, in the finance department and the engineering division.

After he retired, Gritzbach stayed on with the military community and took up volunteer work with his wife, Hilde, who passed away five years ago.  

Weather and health permitting, the German visits his "American friends" three to four times a week to water the plants, do some weeding and simply engage in some small talk.

But now, his rose bushes, as well as the flowers and shrubs from the little garden he’s tended all these years, are being given new homes in local backyards before the military installation shuts down completely.

Troop reduction
Since the end of the 1980s, the U.S. Army in Europe has divested more than 570 military installations, including military barracks, housing areas and isolated radar positions.

By 2015, more major garrisons are expected to be returned in Germany – Heidelberg, Mannheim, Bamberg and Schweinfurt – which the Army says will save $300 million per year.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon announced defense cuts of $487 billion over the next decade, as the United States seeks to move to a smaller, leaner and more agile force, putting a new strategic focus on the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.

The Defense Department in January said that it would remove two of the four U.S. combat brigades stationed in Europe as part of its military restructuring. 

Long gone are the demands of the Cold War, when the Soviet bloc and the United States faced off across the walls, fences and barbed wire of the Iron Curtain.

"Now we are trying to become more effective and more efficient in terms of cost savings, by consolidating and by combining garrisons," the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, Lt.Gen. Mark Phillip Hertling, told NBC News.

Impact on German economy
Yet, for many local hires the drawdown will have severe consequences.

55-year-old Daniel Welch, who has been working for the military as a “local national employee” since 1980 and runs the Army’s environmental division in the greater Heidelberg area, expects to lose his job next year.

"I still have a mortgage to pay off and my daughter is planning to go to college in the U.S., I will need to find a new job somewhere," Welch said.

Back in 1954, his American father met his German mother in Heilbronn during his first deployment to Germany.

"Of course it is emotional," said Welch. "Part of you is closing. The school I attended, the housing area where I grew up, even the church where my parents got married, all closed, all gone."

City officials in Heidelberg expect annual financial losses of up to $25 million, as a result of the closures of U.S. bases in the region.

"We estimate that a total of about 1,000 civilian jobs will be lost, when the nearly 8,000 service members pull out," said Diana Scharl, a spokesperson for the city of Heidelberg.

At the auto dealership across the street from the military installation, the future looks grim too. Fred Ambrosio, 62, expects to close his Liberty Car sales in Heidelberg by September 2013. Like many local businesses, he tailored his car dealership to U.S. customer needs – and with regular troop rotation intervals over the past decades, his business was doing well.

But now, the immediate future does not look rosy.

"The closures in and around Heidelberg have been a real hardship on my income. I have lost about 60 percent of my turnover, and every month it is getting worse," Ambrosio said.

Fred has come up with a backup plan and will move his business and six employees to Grafenwoehr, where the U.S. Army still maintains its largest training facility in Europe.

Emotional farewell
But while many locals have been able to prepare for the changes and some have already found new jobs, it is still a difficult farewell for most.

"The military installation in Heidelberg was like a second home to me and my wife," said Gritzbach, the retiree. He started to cry as he talked about the memories of the “good old days.” He cut three roses to put on his wife's grave and waved good-bye as he walked off.

"It is so sad. I have gone through many bitter phases in my life, but this will be one of the most emotional and most difficult farewells of all," Gritzbach said.

This story is part of a series by and NBC News "What the World Thinks of US". The series aims to check the pulse on current perceptions of America's global stature during the election year and ahead of our annual Independence Day.

Share your thoughts about this story and our series on Twitter using #AmericaMeans 

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