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The Pentagon Plans to Shut Down Half of U.S. Military Bases in Europe

March 24, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TOM BEARDEN: An American family taking advantage of fresh snow near their home: a familiar wintertime scene almost anywhere in America. But this isn’t America; it’s southwestern Germany.

WOMAN: Wie gates. All is good, ja?

TOM BEARDEN: Robert and Ruby Brabo and their children live near the small city of Kitzingen, in the Franconian wine country. Robert is a warrant officer in the U.S. Army, one of 70,000 U.S. Troops stationed in Germany.

About one-third of the soldiers in Kitzingen live “on the economy,” meaning they rent from local Germans. The rest of the service members live on the small bases, called “kasernes” that dot the hillsides around the city.

American soldiers have been here since 1945 when they occupied this small Bavarian city at the end of World War II. Since then, by all accounts, they’ve become an integral part both of the economy and the culture.

RUBY BRABO: There’s a piece to a doll.

TOM BEARDEN: Ruby Brabo says living in Germany has caused her family to appreciate another way of life.

RUBY BRABO: You know, our American culture seems to be so fast-paced, and you come over here and you learn Sunday is family time, everything is closed. You know, you learn to appreciate that again. We seem to be missing that in our American culture.

KATIE MAWBY: These will be your spelling words for this week.

TOM BEARDEN: Katie Mawby, an American who teaches at the Defense Department schools that the Brabo girls attend, says living in a foreign country provides American children with an invaluable education.

KATIE MAWBY: They learn that the world isn’t just this little place where everyone speaks English. In six hours, you’re in Austria or Italy or the Netherlands. And the children, the experiences that they gather from being able to travel to these countries, I think it’s fantastic.

TOM BEARDEN: But opportunities for overseas tours of duty for American service families may become increasingly rare. The Pentagon has announced plans to shut down half of the 400 U.S. bases in Europe over the next ten years, sending about 40,000 troops and 90,000 family members back to the United States.

Brabo’s unit, the 1st Infantry Division, and the 1st Armored Division are the largest organizations slated to leave. Military planners say the threat the Army spent four decades waiting to meet here, a Russian invasion during the cold war, no longer exists. Marine Corps General James Jones commands all U.S. Forces in Europe.

GEN. JAMES JONES: This is largely a reorganization, if you will, or a re-basing concept to make the United States Army in Europe more agile and more usable. Because the fixed defensive sites that we had in the past are just no longer relevant to that threat.

TOM BEARDEN: The reorganization will have a substantial impact on both Americans and Germans. Since World War II, most Army and Air Force service members have been assigned to three-year tours in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

Their families accompanied them when they changed assignments. Occasionally the service member would go on temporary duty, usually a year or less, while the family stayed home.

The redeployment plan would keep family members at bases in the U.S. nearly all the time and rotate the soldiers through new forward operating sites for six months at a time. These bare-bones facilities would be built in Eastern Europe and Africa.

Such rotations are supposed to transform the Army into a more agile, expeditionary force. The rationale is that the forward sites would be closer to today’s threats, and training opportunities would be enhanced because they would take place in less populated areas.

GEN. JAMES JONES: It is time to recognize that the old way of doing things is not appropriate and doesn’t bring the speed, the agility, the usability and the strategic location that we think we need to have in order to make sure that the security environment in the areas of the world where we’re involved and actually are engaged in such a way that we can bring good change, and create a more peaceful environment for the future.

TOM BEARDEN: Since 9/11, service members have seen many more temporary deployments. Brabo’s 1st Infantry Division is returning from a year in Iraq, while their families stayed in Kitzingen. Brabo says many of his colleagues aren’t exactly thrilled with the idea of cycling through remote bases without their families.

WARRANT OFFICER ROBERT BRABO: I think it’s going to have a big impact, that’s my personal opinion. I see it with my own soldiers after this tour in Iraq, and I’m a small unit. Just the number that I see that are not going to reenlist just because, you know, a 12-month deployment is a long time.

RUBY BRABO: Not all marriages can sustain that, and you have to decide what’s more important: Your family or being a soldier.

TOM BEARDEN: Some lawmakers in Germany and some in the United States have criticized the redeployment plan. They point out that the Army has a huge investment in Germany — PXs, commissaries, schools and barracks.

Some say it makes no sense to abandon that investment only to rebuild it in the U.S. or in Eastern Europe. They also note that Germany contributes about a billion dollars a year to support U.S. forces.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the U.S. would save about $1 billion a year closing German bases, but would have to spend about $7 billion to make the transition.

But economics aside, many people in Kitzingen, both Americans and Germans, say something essential would be lost: the cultural understanding that comes from two peoples living together. Marriages between Americans and Germans are common. Specialist McAnthony Foster and his German wife, Mandy, met in Kitzingen, and were married six months ago.

TOM BEARDEN: What was it like to meet her family?

SPECIALIST McANTHONY FOSTER: That was pretty much interesting at first, because besides her and her other sister, the middle sister, no one else can speak English that good. So she’s translating for me. Her mom spoke English just a little bit.

TOM BEARDEN: What was it like to meet his family?

MANDY FOSTER: I was a little nervous because his family is all black and there is no white person in his family, but everybody accepts me and there were no bad thoughts and it was really nice and a warm welcome.

TOM BEARDEN: It was Faschingtime when the NewsHour visited Kitzingen, a pre-Lenten carnival celebration somewhat similar to Mardi Gras. The Protestant Church in Kitzingen put on a big program for the occasion.

The church and most of Kitzingen were all but destroyed by allied bombers in World War II. But Pastor Uwe Ahrens says after the war, the church and the town welcomed American soldiers and their families.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you consider them a part of this community?

REV. UWE AHRENS: Yes, they are. We have them in our lists and we serve them, and they come to us when they want to have a baptizing ceremony. They come to us when they have a wedding ceremony. And sometimes they come also to us when they want to have a confirmation ceremony for all the children. This is quite often.

TOM BEARDEN: At a cafe across the street from the church, many Germans said a U.S. withdrawal would be terrible.

USCHI FORTNER (Translated): I personally would regret it. I can’t describe it specifically, but I don’t know anything else. I was just talking about this yesterday.

How nice it was when the Americans came when we were children. We would stand on the side of the streets and they would throw candies to us. So I just have positive experiences and memories.

TOM BEARDEN: Kitzingen appears to support U.S. troops, even though many people share their government’s opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq. The city government put of a banner to welcome first ID soldiers back to their German “home away from home.”

PETER SEIDEL (Translated): The soldiers are, in the end, just taking orders. They have to do what the commander-in-chief is telling them to do. Why they would want to serve long-term for such a commander, that’s another question. That’s a personal decision of every individual soldier, but we don’t throw them in a pot with their president.

TOM BEARDEN: But Ruby Brabo says not all of Kitizingen’s citizens feel that way.

RUBY BRABO: While he was gone to Iraq, there were a couple of times where my landlord let me know, make sure you park your car in the garage, not everyone in this community likes Americans.

And then a few weeks later in downtown Kitzingen, an older gentleman had simply been crossing the street, saw my U.S. plates and spit on the car, and started, you know, and I was, like, “Okay, just let me drive by.”

TOM BEARDEN: Several hundred Germans in the area have more immediate concerns about the potential pullout: Their jobs. Germans guard the gates of the U.S. bases, run the warehouses and work in the PXs.

Many local businesses that cater specifically to Americans would have to shut down entirely if the bases close. Americans spend more than $36 million in the region every year.

Redeployment would also leave thousands of rental housing units empty. In the larger political sense, some Germans think closing the bases would send a very negative message to all of so-called “old Europe.”

THOMAS LEURER: It’s absolutely extraordinary how well Germans and Americans live together.

TOM BEARDEN: Thomas Leurer, a political scientist at the University of Wurzburg, has been studying relations between Germany and U.S. Military personnel for nearly two decades.

THOMAS LEURER: If the U.S. leaves Europe, then who is to fill that vacuum? There will be a vacuum, I’m afraid, because it seems quite obvious that the European Union is not fully capable in playing that role, not at this point in time.

TOM BEARDEN: General Jones points out that the U.S. will still retain several major bases in Germany, and substantial troop strength.

GEN. JAMES JONES: To our men and women in uniform and to our German friends, and to our Italian friends, our British friends, the American presence might look different, but it’s going to be there and it’s going to be there in a very strong way.

But there is only a finite number of Americans that we can support overseas. At the end of the day, we have to do those things that are of strategic importance to the United States and to our allies.

TOM BEARDEN: The Pentagon says this process will play out over several years: that the goal is to give communities a lot of lead time to cope with the economic consequences of base closures. But no one really knows what can be done about the cultural consequences.