Michael Billen, who owns a barn in the picturesque village of Kaschenbach, in the Eifel region of western Germany, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) away from NATO’s Spangdahlem Air Base, is not convinced by President Donald Trump’s recent announcement that he intends to withdraw US troops from Germany. Right now, the idea, should it be approved by Congress, is to transfer the F-16 fighter jets currently kept at Spangdahlem to an air base in Italy and to withdraw half of the 4,800 US troops based there.
“The Americans will withdraw their fighter jets, and then they’ll be back,” says Billen, who is part of an organization that promotes friendship between the US and Germany
“The Americans will withdraw their fighter jets, and then they’ll be back,” said Billen, the vice president of the Host Nation Council Spangdahlem, which promotes friendship between the United States and Germany. “It makes no sense in terms of military strategy to withdraw the planes permanently, because it would mean that the US no longer wants to be a world power,” added Billen, who is involved in local politics as a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).
The Trump administration wants to transfer the F-16 fighter jets to an air base in Italy and to withdraw half of the 4,800 US troops based there
Read more: Donald Trump accuses Germany of ‘making a fortune’ off US soldiers
Manfred Rodens, the CDU mayor of Speicher — the town where Spangdahlem is located — said withdrawing the US troops would create a real problem for local businesses and landlords. About 800 German civilians work on the air base, and there are approximately 2,400 rental agreements connected to the presence of US troops at the base. “If they withdraw, we will lose our purchasing power,” Rodens said. He added that he was pinning his hopes on the US Congress, which will decide “whether the president’s plans can even be implemented.” Rodens thought that the decision would ultimately be a financial one for the US legislature as it would cost billions to withdraw the troops.
“If [the US military] withdraws, we will lose our purchasing power,” says the mayor of Speicher, the town where the base is located
Read more: Nearly half of Germans in favor of US military withdrawal: survey
Joachim Streit, a regional administrator, said the cost of withdrawing the troops would not only be felt in the United States. US citizens spend about Є100 million ($117.5 million) per year on rent, restaurants and other goods and services in the vicinity of Spangdahlem. “Construction firms and other businesses in the region live with and off the Americans,” he said. Still, he added, the region could recover. In 1994, the United States closed down the Bitburg Air Base and many soldiers and their families left. Streit said regional companies had moved onto the site and the “Bitburg model” of creating small and medium-sized enterprises had proved itself in other times of crisis. “In the end we had more jobs than with the Americans,” he said.
In recent years, Streit said, the US military personnel at Spangdahlem had become “more open than before.” Twenty years ago, he said, the brass never revealed anything about troop withdrawals or about building plans, but now officials invite mayors and other officials from around the region to keep them informed.
“Construction firms and other businesses in the region live with and off the Americans,” Streit, a regional administrator, says — but he thinks the area could recover.
Read more: Germany’s Bundeswehr to help German states after US pullout
‘A political decision’
Many of the retired US troops who have decided to stay in the region agreed. They were the only residents with a military affiliation who could really speak openly about their opinions. Richard Lant, a 64-year-old veteran who is married in Germany, said he did not want to go back to California. He could not believe that the US government would simply shut the air base down, however, because too much money had been put into modernizing it and expanding the runway and building new hangars. “They spent millions of dollars building a new hospital there, a dental clinic,” he said. “They built a new school, a huge fitness center. I just can’t imagine that not being used.”
Lant said he thought that, if the F-16s were removed indefinitely, other planes would arrive instead. He also speculated as to what might have motivated the threat by the US president. “Some people say it’s a political decision because he doesn’t like Angela Merkel,” he said.
The air base is often empty at the weekends as its residents are traveling around Europe.
Read more: US military in Germany: What you need to know
Most US soldiers like being in Germany, Lant said, and the base organizes a lot of activities for troops stationed there. “Going to Germany was a big thing for a guy like me from Sacramento, California,” he said. “Then you get to Germany and you find out: Wow, we can go to Brussels, we can go to Paris. And the base sets up all kinds of tours for you in your free time. Almost every weekend there is something going somewhere — ski trips in the Alps, parasailing, hang gliding, the Tour de France bicycle race last year.”
Thomas Van Dyke, an 82-year-old retired major who once wrote a travel guide to Germany for his fellow Americans, also said soldiers usually liked being posted in the country. At the weekend, the air base is often empty because troops are off and about, he said. He is married to a German woman and does not want to return to the United States. He also believes that the Spangdahlem base will remain in operation.
Read more: Former US commander: Troop withdrawal from Germany ‘gift to Kremlin’
Günther Schneider’s farm is 600 meters from Spangdahlem’s runway, and he experiences noise pollution as a result
A contaminated environment
There are many in the region who would be pleased if the US troops left once and for all. The part-time farmer Günther Schneider, for instance, has been waiting for such an announcement for decades.
Schneider’s farm is 600 meters (2,000 feet) from Spangdahlem’s runway, and the noise makes him ill. But his family has lived in the region for 400 years and he refuses to be driven away — even though he lost some of his property when the base was expanded 20 years ago.
Another major problem is the fact that, for years, soldiers practiced how to put out fires on planes. They used an extinguishing agent that contained perfluorinated tensides, which have since been found to be carcinogenic — and now the groundwater, streams and ponds in the area are contaminated.
If the US troops do remain in Spangdahlem, Schneider and many of his neighbors will not be pleased.
There are almost 35,000 US soldiers stationed in Germany — mostly in the west and south of the country. Nowhere else in Europe are there so many American troops. But now US President Donald Trump wants to change that, withdrawing some 12,000 soldiers from the country. It would be a major test for the military alliance between Germany and the US.
The American military presence in Germany began at the end of World War II. Along with its allies, the US had liberated Germany from the Nazis. However, their wartime ally, the Soviet Union, soon became an enemy. The tensions between the two sides were demonstrated when US Army and Soviet Union tanks faced off in a divided Berlin.
The US soldiers also brought American culture to Germany. The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, as Elvis Presley would eventually become known, was drafted in as a soldier and began his military service in Germany in 1958. He is seen here waving to his fans at Bremerhaven train station.
Over the years the US Army has become firmly entrenched in the German landscape. Dotted around US bases are numerous residential districts for American soldiers and their families, such as this residential district in Wiesbaden-Erbenheim. This often creates barriers to their full integration into German society. The US Army employed 17,000 American civilians in Germany in 2019.
Despite separate residential districts, there has always been contact and exchange between German and American families. In the early years, dances were held on the streets of Berlin in summer months and in winter, the US Army organized Christmas parties for local children. And there were the German-American friendship weeks every year.
The Federal Republic of Germany became an important strategic location during the Cold War. The NATO maneuver Reforger I (Return of Forces to Germany) in Vilseck/Grafenwöhr in 1969 was one of many joint war games held by the US Army and the Bundeswehr. The enemy was the Soviet Union and the other signatories of the Warsaw Pact, including the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.
Heavily guarded Pershing-II rockets were brought to the US base in Mutlangen in 1983. The rockets, armed with nuclear warheads, became a political issue. They were touted as filling an important gap in NATO’s deterrent shield against the Warsaw Pact. Peace activists, however, saw them as a threat and held massive demonstrations. Many celebrities joined in the protests.
Some 20 years later, US President George W. Bush went to war with Iraq over its alleged program to develop weapons of mass destruction. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, knowing the majority of voters supported him, ruled out Germany’s involvement. That led to deep divisions between Washington and Berlin.
Even if President Trump goes ahead with his threat to withdraw 12,000 American soldiers, Germany would remain strategically important for the US. The Ramstein base is especially significant, since it is also headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe. It’s from here that controversial drone missions are flown against targets in Africa and Asia.
A previous version of this article stated that Richard Lant was 53, and that he was married to a German. Richard Lant is in fact 64 years old and was married in Germany. This article has been corrected to reflect those facts.