US troop shift: A tale of two cities

Bush's plan this week to restructure US forces in Europe is causing a mix of worry, nostalgia, and hope.

In Drawsko Pomorskie, a decaying Polish farm town nestled between the German border and the Baltic Sea, weary residents are finally feeling hopeful. A few hundred miles southwest, where dark forests meet the low-lying fields of the Ardennes, residents of Baumholder, Germany, are already nostalgic over on an era they fear may be over.

The winds of change are blowing across Europe, bringing dramatically different fortunes to these two cities.

President Bush's announcement this week of major US troop realignment has several European towns scrambling.

For some, like Baumholder, the shifting deployment could mean the end of a warm - and lucrative - relationship with US forces that began when Allied forces defeated Hitler's armies and helped reconstruct war-torn Europe.

For others, like Drawsko, the move could bring much-needed economic development. Though Pentagon plans have not been finalized, the military training ground on the edge of the city could become the site of one of the first modern US bases.

In Drawsko, hopes are high that the US will send troops and spark economic growth.

"We are very interested in having the Americans invest in the training area," says Zbigniew Ptak, the Drawsko mayor. "Where the military is, there is money. And one day Drawsko will look just like Germany looks today."

Drawsko today is hardly a picture of prosperity. Unemployment is a staggering 38 percent, twice the national average. There is virtually no industry. Soviet-era wooden sheds that house makeshift retail stores selling sweet breads and no-name jeans form the backbone of local commerce.

Despite the Communist-era shadows that darken this provincial town, some bright spots are emerging. Workers are building sidewalks. Ground is being broken for the first hotel in a decade.

Martin Orzepowski, a Drawsko native, lived in Germany for 22 years before returning home two years ago. He's seen the sprawling US military communities in Berlin, Frankfurt, and other German cities, and he knows what US presence could mean for Drawsko.

"Outside the bases we would have to build shopping centers, cinemas, restaurants," he says. "It would give people here jobs."

Residents of Baumholder, meanwhile, are anxious about the future.

On the hills above the city's white-washed houses covered with gray slate roofs stand row after row of American barracks and family housing. For each of Baumholder's 4,800 German citizens there are nearly three Americans, most attached to "Old Ironsides," the 1st Armored Division that has stood guard ever since the end of the World War II.

American GIs walk the streets, eat at local restaurants, and marry Baumholder's daughters. Female soldiers and the wives of GIs have their hair done at the local beauty parlor, and their children play on local soccer teams.

The city is emblematic of how Germany's relationship to the United States changed from enemy to ally.

"The Americans changed us," says Herbert Grimm, who served as a German paratrooper. "They broadened our horizons, opened up the world to us. They came as strangers but they have become a part of us."

Sigrid Zimmer, proprietor of the Berghof Hotel, has often taken an active role supporting US troops in Baumholder. When the soldiers from the base shipped off to Iraq last year, she organized a drive to send care packages.

"When they left for Iraq it was just terrible," she says. "Those are our boys, too. It just won't be the same without them."

Zimmer pulls out a handful of thank-you letters that soldiers wrote from Iraq. She is particularly fond of a letter from Pfc. Roy Scranton, who wrote: "It is the thought of such kind and openhearted people back home that makes our hard work here worthwhile and carries us through our daily struggle."

"When he referred to Baumholder as home, I just cried my heart out," she says.

For many Baumholder residents, though, it's the economic reality of the troop withdrawal that hits hardest.

"I'll have to close my shop and move to Kaiserslautern," says Jürgen Kloos, the owner of GK Auto Parts. "A lot of businesses could close here - the hotels, car repair shops, restaurants."

Back in Drawsko, the Americans are already making their presence felt. Soldiers have renovated two classrooms of the local primary school and donated $60,000 to modernize an emergency unit at the hospital.

But people here figure that even if the Americans take care of themselves first, the benefits will rub off on the local population.

"In the past, this place was nothing but a big farm and there's no industry to take its place," says Orzepowksi. "If the Americans come, people here know it means one thing: jobs."

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