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Departure Of German Air Force May Deal Blow To New Mexico Town

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Matthew Bowler
Hundreds of unidentified migrants are buried in this Imperial County cemetery, June 28, 2016.
Departure Of German Air Force May Deal Blow To New Mexico Town

On a recent Tuesday in a hangar at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, a German Tornado jet powered up for the first training exercise of the day. The final pre-flight checks were done, the pilots have climbed aboard and the bomber was taxied to the runway for takeoff.

For more than 20 years, Holloman Air Force Base has been home to the German Air Force Flying Training Center, Germany's largest military installation on foreign soil. Center officials say the controlled airspace and sparsely populated desert is the perfect environment to train pilots in low-level flying and bombing. Clear and warm conditions mean they can train pilots 300 days out of the year.

German Luftwaffe Master Sgt. Steffen Milner performs a maintenance check of a Tornado jet at Holloman Air Force Base, April 19, 2016.
Simon Thompson / KRWG
German Luftwaffe Master Sgt. Steffen Milner performs a maintenance check of a Tornado jet at Holloman Air Force Base, April 19, 2016.

“Look at the weather — the sun is shining, it is always warm," Luftwaffe Master Sgt. Steffen Milner said.

He and his crew were loading weapons onto the next Tornado jet preparing to fly. "It is a mild winter here," Milner said. "There is no snow. Where I come from, it is always cloudy. And you know it is not such a great weather.”

But the long run of the German Air Force in the New Mexico sun will soon come to an end. These days, the air force is changing its strategy, with Tornadoes playing a smaller and different role. In 2005, the Germans were training with 38 Tornado jets at Holloman. Today, there are only 14 on the base.

The training center's commander, Stephan Breidenbach, said the shrinking fleet makes the mission hard to justify.

“Now, the number of Tornadoes is so small," Breidenbach said. "Basically, to operate them efficiently, we need to just reduce the base and consolidate the tornadoes at the two remaining air bases in Germany, to have efficient logistics and also have the crews together.”

Over the past five years, Germany paid the U.S. government $151.3 million to train officers at Holloman. But this year, the German military announced the center will be closed down by 2019, when its current contract runs out.

But the Germans' departure may be a bigger blow to the neighboring town of Alamogordo.

House for rent in Alamogordo, New Mexico, April 19th, 2016.
Simon Thompson / KRWG
House for rent in Alamogordo, New Mexico, April 19th, 2016.

Vacant houses have littered the streets of Alamogordo since the 2008 recession. Real estate agent Lebron Little said the Germans' departure will result in a 15 percent loss for the rental market and about 400 more vacant houses in town.

“The Germans love to rent around the golf course area," Little said. "They are always wanting somewhere with a pool. They are wanting some of the higher priced homes. They are wanting something very nice."

There are around 1,200 Germans in Alamogordo, making it the largest community of German expatriates in the U.S. The city also has the largest public German school outside Germany, along with German-run charities, a church and a German food section at Wal-Mart. Every year, the Germans throw an Oktoberfest party that brings to Alamogordo thousands of people and beer, food and entertainment especially flown in from Germany.

That's where Milner met his American girlfriend. He said he enjoys the cultural exchange.

“That is what I love, the food. I love the burgers and I am eating a lot of it,” Milner said.

He said he's not ready to leave America.

“It is different," Milner said. "You feel more free. You can you can basically do whatever you want if you don't harm someone and that is pretty cool. In Germany, it just doesn't feel so free."

New Mexico State Senator Bill Burt said the German contract came at a crucial time in the 1990s when Holloman was being considered for closure. The latest Holloman Air Force Base impact statement shows German Air Force Base personnel payroll was $28.5 million in 2013, about 12 percent of the total payroll coming out of Holloman Air Force Base.

Tornado jet powers up at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, April 19th, 2016.
Simon Thompson / KRWG
Tornado jet powers up at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, April 19th, 2016.

Burt said the Germans are leaving behind millions of dollars worth of hangars and office buildings, which could attract another mission to fill the void.

“The loss of the Germans will be dramatic for Holloman Air Force Base and for the community of Alamogordo," the senator said. "Just as much as we hate losing having the economic impact, we are going to lose our friends."

The German government plans to continue smaller training operations in Texas, Arizona and Florida. And some Holloman personnel, like Msgt. Milner, plan to remain in the U.S.

Milner said when the base closes, he will resign from the German military just so he can stay in America with his girlfriend.

“I went on vacation in San Diego for the 4th of July and that was it! I was in San Diego, the most beautiful city in the U.S. I saw the fireworks, the party for the 4th of July and that just convinced me that the U.S. is actually the place I want to stay at and settle,” Milner said.

He's applying to universities in California to study business administration, so he can get a visa.