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After half-century, Germans to leave Fort Bliss

Oct. 1, 2013 - 07:17PM   |  
The German Air Force's North American command at Fort Bliss, Texas, is deactivated at a ceremony Sept. 26 after nearly 60 years of having a presence in the West Texas desert.
The German Air Force's North American command at Fort Bliss, Texas, is deactivated at a ceremony Sept. 26 after nearly 60 years of having a presence in the West Texas desert. (Vanessa Monsisvais / AP via the El Paso (Texas) Ti)
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FORT BLISS, TEXAS — After nearly 60 years of having a presence in the West Texas desert, the German Air Force has deactivated its USA/Canada Command.

Tuesday’s deactivation is the first step toward the Germans closing its command center at Fort Bliss by 2017.

The move is part of a German military reorganization. “We don’t have a cold war anymore, and you have to find which barracks are expensive and here is quite expensive,” said Sgt. Maj. Juergen Volmer, Public Affairs Officer for the Command.

The command dwindled from about 40 officers in previous years to about two dozen, and only seven remained before it was officially shuttered.

Some were transferred to New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force Base, some 70 miles north of El Paso while others were sent to other bases around the U.S. where the German air force has presence. The Luftwaffe flight training center in Alamogordo, N.M., will expand its responsibilities.

The air command, established in 1966, was in charge of all the German Air Force’s operations in the U.S. and Canada. Its duties were largely administrative.

The Air Defense Center, the other German unit in Fort Bliss, was set up in 1956, and since then more than 50,000 German soldiers have trained there.

Just 11 years after the end of WWII, German soldiers went to this Far West Texas post to learn to use the anti-air cannons of the era.

The air defense systems used by the Germans evolved into missiles that could shoot down other rockets and German soldiers began training with the Nike Hercules and, later, the Hawk systems. Currently, soldiers learn to use Patriot missile batteries. Training of German officers will continue in Germany sometime after 2017, when the classroom buildings there are completed, said Hauff.

Volmer says Fort Bliss was always welcoming. The fact that many U.S. soldiers have served in Germany means “you come here and you are always a friend.”

Good friends and the weather, are what he loves about El Paso. “In Germany it’s always raining, dark and cold.”

But aside from keeping soldiers happy, good weather and vast open spaces in far West Texas and southern New Mexico are crucial to their training. “You don’t have that in Germany, or Europe.”

Currently the center trains about 500 each year, about half of the maximum number of students the center saw in the 80’s.

The center will start reducing personnel next year, when they go down from about 140 staff members to around 100. The Command also saw a reduction before shuttering. From 40, it went to about two dozen officers and only seven remained the day it shut down.

That reduction of personnel means, among other things, that celebrating Oktoberfest -a 40-plus year old tradition in Fort Bliss- will not be possible in years to come. “We need at least 140 persons to do it right, like we have done it in the past,” Hauff said. And there is no chance they will attempt to organize a lesser, more modest version of the celebrations that, like this year, drew more than 2,500 people to drink beer, sport lederhosen and listen to traditional Bavarian music.

Maybe, just maybe, residents of El Paso might not have to say goodbye to the yearly beer-drinking event. “If the Americans are interested, we can tell them how to do it,” Hauff said. But they have to do it quick as the Germans normally started planning next year’s party one week after the end of festivities. “We have to book the bands, talk to the brewers,” Volmer said.

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