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Ramping up in Europe

Imagine going out to hunt wild boar in the forests of Germany, then celebrating with buddies at the local gasthaus, hoisting a brew that rivals any you can find in the States.

This could be you on assignment to Europe, and your chances are looking better as plans develop for troop rotations, and as billets are available in many countries across the continent.

With a renewed focus on Europe, assignments there can translate into coveted and potentially career-building opportunities for U.S. troops.

Also, troops can now be assigned to locations across 23 countries in "career broadening" billets with NATO Land Command, its top officer says.

Europe has been a career highlight for millions of U.S. troops and their families. The chance to live there — visit castles, explore ancient cities, give your kids memories for a lifetime, and get paid for it — has diminished substantially in recent years as the U.S. has reduced its presence in Europe. U.S. Army Europe, for example, has seen its number of soldiers drop from 178,000 in 1992 to 30,000 today.

Even so, NATO is looking to expand opportunities for U.S. troops in Europe, and there are jobs for both noncommissioned officers and field-grade officers, said Lt. Gen. Frederick "Ben" Hodges, the boss of NATO's Land Command. That includes "the opportunity to live two or three years in Poland or France or the U.K. or Germany or Spain or Italy."

Other locations would have been astonishing to troops who served in Europe during the Cold War: training in Romania, billets in Turkey.

The U.S. is the largest contributor of troops to the relatively new NATO Land Command, based in Izmir, Turkey.

The U.S. also contributes troops to German/Netherlands Corps, a multi-national corps in Munster, Germany; the NATO Rapid Deployable Corps in Solbiate Olona, Italy; the Rapid Reaction Corps in Lille, France; the two Joint Force Commands, one in Brunssum, the Netherlands, and the other in Naples, Italy; Maritime Command Headquarters near London; and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe near Mons, Belgium.

About 2,000 U.S. positions exist throughout NATO, Hodges said.

When Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno visited NATO Land Command headquarters, "he said, 'I consider this a broadening assignment,' " Hodges said. "That was the best thing I could have heard him say. This is a place you want to send somebody who's got a future [in the Army]."

For many troops who've known years of war, Europe is a whole new take on the concept of deployment.

"From the rotational standpoint, what we're trying to do is set this up so soldiers get a great experience as far as a deployment opportunity," said Lt. Gen. Donald Campbell, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe. "It's not an operational deployment or a combat deployment, but it gives them a focus and an opportunity to come to a part of the world they may not have had a chance to be in."

A major emphasis is training with other countries.

"We want to make sure the focus, obviously, is training, readiness and reassurance to our partners, but we're also looking for cultural opportunities so we can integrate those into the exercises, so they get opportunities to experience German culture or French culture or other things of that nature," Campbell said.

Taking the family

Families can come along for all the NATO assignments, except the ones in Turkey's Istanbul and Izmir, Hodges said. That may change soon: Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, has approved a recommendation to allow troops assigned to Istanbul and Izmir to bring their families, Hodges said. The recommendation is pending approval from the Defense Department.

The other assignments are accompanied two- or three-year tours, "just like back in the good old days in Germany," Hodges said.

For troops who bring their families on accompanied tours, one concern will be education, particularly when they are located a distance from DoD schools.

"Parents are always going to worry about education," Hodges said. "Typically, there are international schools that soldiers in all these headquarters will send their kids to, and the fact that your kid is getting a two- or three-year experience in Europe is a valuable part of that education."

European getaways

Vacations, big and small, are right outside the gate. Many excursions are organized right on garrison, for reasonable rates, which is important to many troops and family members, given the euro's strength against the U.S. dollar. Service members can go for affordable adventures far and wide through recreation services at their installations.

For example, you can take a day trip from Grafenwoehr to two famous Bavarian castles for $59 per adult, less for children, through Morale, Welfare and Recreation, or MWR. The MWR in Garmisch offers three-day weekends in Prague for less than $400.

If hunting or fishing in Europe sounds appealing, U.S. troops in Europe can take courses at Air Force bases and Army garrisons to qualify for a foreigner's hunting or fishing license, and certification for recreational shooting in Germany. With your license, according to the Hohenfels MWR website, you can "join in hunting and fishing traditions that go back several hundred years."