The Bavarian town where US troops are the life and soul

GRAFENWÖHR, GERMANY (AFP) – When the United States (US) announced last year that it would be withdrawing troops from Germany, shockwaves rippled through the country – but nowhere more than in the Bavarian town of Grafenwoehr.

For the town located on the edge of the most important US army base in Europe, hope was revived in November by the election of Democrat Joe Biden as the next US president.

But much remains at stake for the community known as ‘Little America’, whose prosperity has depended on the presence of US troops since the end of World War II 75 years ago.

“Grafenwoehr is nothing without the US soldiers,” said Piri Bradshaw, whose parents run a business in the town centre.

Establishments like this have become the life and soul of Grafenwoehr, where traditional barbers stand alongside tattoo parlours – not to mention the many businesses and restaurants that were doing a roaring trade before COVID-19 came along.

On one street corner, a BMW dealership offers a ‘military discount’.

“Imagine, we have seven supermarkets – far too many for a town of 6,500 inhabitants,” Bradshaw pointed out.

ABOVE & BELOW: The old town of Grafenwoehr, southern Germany ; and former United States soldier and car dealer Raymond Tavarez Gascot poses in his garage in Grafenwoehr, southern Germany. PHOTOS: AFP

Head of Culture of the Military Museum Birgit Ploessner poses in a room of the town’s military museum with a dummy featuring United States ‘King of Rock and Roll’ singer Elvis Presley, who was briefly stationed in Grafenwoehr during his US Army military service
An exhibit in the military museum

But someone has to feed the 40,000 soldiers and their families who live in and around the base.

In the town centre, a few old buildings still bear witness to Grafenwoehr’s distant past as a quiet rural community – but the roaring of gunfire quickly brings visitors back to the present.

“We are used to it and sometimes don’t even hear it anymore,” said Head of Culture at the Military MuseumBirgit Ploessner, pointing out that a training camp was set up here as early as 1908.

The US set up a permanent base near the town, but the country’s overall military presence in Germany has declined from some 200,000 soldiers in 1990 to 34,500 today.

Although the prospect had been looming for years, US President Donald Trump’s decision in July to redeploy 12,000 soldiers from Germany – including some 5,000 from Grafenwoehr and the neighbouring town of Vilseck – still came as a shock.

Even a small reduction in troops would have “serious” economic consequences for the town, according to Grafenwoehr Mayor Edgar Knobloch.

“The base provides employment for more than 3,000 civilians in the region,” he told AFP.
In addition, the troops spend about EUR660 million a year in the local community.

The election of Biden and the suspension of troop withdrawals pending further analysis by the Pentagon has been a great “relief” for the town, Knobloch said.

“Our troubles are not over, but I am confident that the decision will be in our favour,” he said.

Knobloch believes such a decision would also be in the interests of the US, which has invested heavily in recent years to modernise the base.

Soldiers are trained at Grafenwoehr before being sent on missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the armies of NATO member countries also train there regularly.

And the base does not only have economic value. “Three generations of US soldiers have followed one another here, sometimes even from father to son,” said Ploessner.

They include the King himself, Elvis Presley, who did most of his military service in Germany.

During his time in Grafenwoehr, Presley even gave a private concert in a business establishment – the only one in Europe in his entire career.

The town museum has lovingly recreated the scene with the original piano and a plastic Elvis.

The presence of the US soldiers permeates every aspect of cultural and social life in the town.

“We celebrate US Independence Day like the Maibaum,” Ploessner said, referring to a popular Celtic Maypole festival in Bavaria.

“There is a real understanding between people here,” added Knobloch, with some soldiers even returning to settle in the area after they leave the army.

Raymond TavarezGascot is one of them. A year after retiring from the army, the Puerto Rico-born former paratrooper returned to Grafenwoehr in 2007, got married and fulfilled his dream of setting up a garage.

“I fell in love with the country, the culture,” said the 45-year-old, though he admits to still struggling with the language.

“Yes I miss the weather, the beach, the sun,” he said. But “the reality is you can’t compare the quality of life”.