August 20, 1997 in Nation/World

Luftwaffe Taking Flak Over U.S. Base German Air Force A Boon To New Mexican Economy, But Some Don’t Like It

Barry Shlachter Fort Worth Star-Telegram
 

The Muellers live in a new house, swim in a backyard pool, drive showroom-fresh sport utility vehicles and are taking their second vacation to California in a year.

Little would distinguish them from many families in the United States except for the fact that when 38-year-old Thomas Mueller leaves in the morning, he dons fatigues bearing the insignia of the Luftwaffe.

Since May 1996, Holloman Air Force Base has been home to the German Air Force Tactical Training Center USA, which trains pilot instructors on the Tornado low-level attack jet.

The center, whose unit patch depicts the Iron Cross on the New Mexico flag, could expand from 12 planes with 750 personnel and dependents to 30 Tornadoes with 2,100 staff and dependents in three years - if given the goahead in December by Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall.

Except for some grousing over higher rents caused by the influx, the local community has generally viewed the Luftwaffe as an economic boon at a time of declining defense spending.

But ranchers in Texas and New Mexico oppose any expansion that would bring more of the ground-hugging, supersonic jets screaming over their cattle. Conservationists say proposed bomb targets could harm untouched grasslands. And folks convinced of a “one world” conspiracy see the German presence as a way to put an American base under United Nations control.

What lured the Germans here were the clear skies and wide-open spaces, said the unit’s commander, Col. Eckhard Sowada, an affable man with impeccable English who finds he must be as much a diplomat as a career officer.

“In Europe, we have pretty bad weather, crowded airspace and, with a dense population, there are flying restrictions,” Sowada said.

If the expansion phase is approved, Sowada’s Tornadoes would range as far east as Big Bend National Park in Texas and as far west as Arizona.

“Of all people, why pick the Germans?” asked Ken Roberts, 64, a Phoenix pool contractor who retired to Alamogordo six years ago but threatens to leave if the German unit grows. “We fought three wars against them - if you include the Hessians during the American Revolution.”

Roberts insists he’d oppose any foreign presence but said local residents traditionally are pro-German.

Expansion would require a new bombing range at one of two proposed sites in Fort Bliss’ McGregor Range, located in New Mexico north of El Paso, Texas, or the use of an existing site, which the Germans reject.

The Sierra Club says the range contains pristine grasslands and a habitat for endangered species. A draft environmental report found few potential problems, although noise would be “incompatible” to isolated ranch houses.

Marianne Thaeler, of Las Cruces, N.M., who handles military issues for the Sierra Club’s Rio Grande chapter, asks why the Germans couldn’t use existing targets on weekends when U.S. Air Force pilots are off?

“We have families also,” Sowada said. “We don’t fly on weekends.”

Ranchers fear the Tornadoes will wreck windmills, stampede cattle and disturb calving.

“When aircraft are flying between 100 and 300 feet above your ranch, it’s an intrusion on your personal private rights, not to mention the impact on our livestock and the quality of life,” said Al Micaleff, 54, owner of the Fort Worth, Texas, Reata Restaurant who has extensive ranch holdings in far West Texas.

“The fact they are foreign and will not train over their own soil because of restrictions, that’s really maddening,” Micaleff added.

The Internet is abuzz with extremist warnings of Holloman becoming part of a United Nations-controlled force.

Republic of Texas leader Richard McLaren, who claims New Mexico for Texas, warned in March he would place liens on German property if the Luftwaffe stayed at Holloman. But McLaren was arrested May 3, before he could carry out the threat.

Except for the occasional angry letter to the editor, Alamogordo itself has welcomed the Luftwaffe with open arms, many residents said.

It’s a town with unusual German connections.

After World War II, the secretive Operation Paperclip spirited V-2 rocket scientists out of Germany to boost U.S. technology.

About 50 guidance specialists were taken to nearby White Sands Proving Ground, and some 40 ended up settling here with their families, said Mayor Don Carroll, whose wife, Rosemarie, is the daughter of a Paperclip scientist.

A city of 30,000 dependent on Holloman’s 4,300 personnel, Alamogordo sees the Luftwaffe presence as “economic diversity” that might prevent or mitigate a future base cutback, said Michael Dalby, the chamber of commerce executive director.

“This is an economic boom for a town this size, no other way to class it,” said the Stephenville, Texasreared Dalby.

German airmen now put about $1 million a month into the local economy. Moreover, the unit has spent $42 million of an earmarked $105 million to construct on-base facilities while contributing another $33 million toward Holloman’s running costs, Sowada said, adding: “It’s not for free.”

The effect is felt, both good and bad.

Because all of the Germans live off base - helped by a hefty housing allowance - their arrival triggered both substantial rent increases and a construction boom.

“Some of the ranchers don’t like the sonic boom, but it’s music to my ears,” smiled George Brockett, 67, whose Waffle & Pancake House has seen business jump 10 percent since the Luftwaffe landed.

The Germans say some adjustment is required.

Unlike the spouses of American servicemen in Germany, Luftwaffe dependents here cannot work. The unit commander said this point is being renegotiated.

“It’s a problem with the wives, perhaps our biggest problem,” said the Rev. Peter Wieschollek, 44, a civilian Lutheran chaplain with the Luftwaffe.

Wieschollek and his lay Catholic colleague, Hubert Muenchmeyer, who is married to an American, say they organize groups of housewives to discuss the situation.

“Isolation is a problem,” Muenchmeyer said. “I tell them, ‘Positiv denken’ - Think positive. For some it’s difficult. For others, it’s a challenge, and they like it.”

There’s a custom Muenchmeyer himself has not quite adjusted to.

“In Germany, you can sit in a pub, have a beer, enjoy the atmosphere. Here, you eat and, when you finish, they expect you to leave,” he said.

Not at the Europa Cafe, a tiny establishment serving sandwiches on home-baked “schwarzbrot” - black bread - and owned by the German-born wife of a U.S. airman at Holloman.

Curiously, it doesn’t attract much Luftwaffe clientele; the Germans basically want to sample American or Mexican fare when dining out.

“My life hasn’t changed; it goes on as usual,” owner Cristine Boerner Black, 35, said of her compatriots’ presence. “Only when I see those letters to the editor - ‘Why would we allow Germans to fly over our property when we fought two world wars’ - it makes me sad. And it hurts.”


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