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Guarding Americans : U.S. Europe Bases: Issue of Security

September 04, 1985|WILLIAM TUOHY | Times Staff Writer

HEIDELBERG, West Germany — U.S. Army headquarters in West Germany, situated at the southern edge of this medieval university city, is closely guarded by sharp-eyed military policemen with loaded automatic weapons.

Concrete flower boxes are positioned to ward off car bombers. Visitors are subjected to a rigorous security check by guards who refer to photos of wanted terrorists.

But just around the corner lies the sprawling Mark Twain housing complex for American dependents. The apartment buildings and children's playgrounds are virtually unprotected.

This disparity says something about the problems of guarding U.S. servicemen and their families in West Germany, or anywhere else in Europe. For while security is tight at key military installations, most of the servicemen and their families live in private, off-base housing--much as they would in the United States.

300,000 Dependents

There are about 320,000 U.S. servicemen in Europe, 252,000 of them in West Germany. With them are about 300,000 dependents, about two-thirds of whom are in West Germany. They are scattered around Western and Central Europe, at several hundred locations ranging from big headquarters complexes to tiny detachments of no more than a dozen men.

The West German area around Kaiserslautern, between the French border and the Rhine River, is said to contain the largest American community outside the United States. About 70,000 service personnel and their dependents live there.

American officers are fully aware of the problems involved in protecting all these people and places, particularly in light of a recent surge of activity by the terrorist Red Army Faction and supporting groups.

Gen. Glenn K. Otis, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, said the other day, "We're very concerned, and we have taken measures to make us a harder target."

New Barriers Installed

Obviously, some of the more sophisticated security systems are not being discussed to prevent terrorists from finding out about them. But Otis made no secret of the fact that additional guards have been placed on duty and additional barriers put up to frustrate bombers.

Also, all American personnel are being urged to be on the alert for suspicious strangers and suspicious vehicles. Before terrorists can mount an attack, the general pointed out, they have to scout out a target and formulate a plan.

"In the past 10 months," he said, "we've foiled several attempts at reconnoitering that might have resulted in terrorist incidents."

At places like the Rhein-Main Air Base, where two Americans were killed last month in a car-bomb attack, security has been stepped up sharply.

And Lt. Col. William H. Johnson Jr. told a reporter at U.S. Air Force headquarters at the big base at Ramstein, "We are concerned with doing everything we believe is feasible to protect our people."

No Bunker Mentality

Still, most senior U.S. military officers want to avoid developing a bunker mentality. They do not want Americans here to hunker down in a state of near-panic.

Maj. Robert E. Dittmer II, who is attached to the Army headquarters command here, said: "What we don't want to do is encourage a frame of mind where we are drawing up the wagons in a circle. We definitely do not want to develop a laager (circled wagons) or ghetto mentality among our people. Our enemy is not 60 million West Germans but rather a hard core of 20 or 30 terrorists. We have to keep that perspective in mind."

The U.S. responsibility for security ends at the gates of the U.S. bases. Outside, West German police are responsible for Americans' safety.

German Security Praised

As an American diplomat put it: "The German government is responsible for security within its own country, and it is quite good at it. We maintain confidence in their ability to protect us as well as their own people from terrorists."

U.S. officials point out that in the past decade only half a dozen Americans have been killed by terrorists in West Germany. Many more servicemen are killed every year in accidents that occur on maneuvers--to say nothing of highway crashes.

Few servicemen here seem to have any fear of possible terrorist attacks. Sgt. 1st Class Robert W. Lentner said: "Terrorism is a criminal activity, so you do what is normal and prudent to protect yourself against any criminal activity, like vandalism or even mugging.

"I feel much safer in Germany going out to dinner with my wife than I would in some American cities. I keep my eyes open, on the base and off the base. I don't know any soldiers who are developing any paranoia about these latest developments."

Dressed in Civvies

Most servicemen wear civilian clothing off the base, but not because of any threat. "We've been wearing civvies after hours for years," Lentner said.

But terrorists would have little difficulty in identifying American servicemen. Their accents are distinctive, as are their short haircuts. And their cars bear U.S. military license plates.

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