FORT BLISS, Texas - America’s Tank Division marks the nine year anniversary of its historic return to U.S. soil after serving four decades abroad on May 13th.
After 1st Armored Division cased the colors on May 13, 2011 at Wiesbaden Army Airfield in Germany, the division command team uncased the colors to the booms of howitzer cannon fire echoing off El Paso’s Franklin Mountains on May 24, 2011, as an official welcome to Fort Bliss.
The occasion marked the first time the division colors were unfurled in the U.S. since 1971 and the homecoming of the last U.S. Army division to leave Germany.
It was also the start of the special bond and rapid growth of Fort Bliss and the City of El Paso. With the relocation of the 1st Armored Division, Fort Bliss grew from 9,000 soldiers in 2005 to more than 34,000 in 2011.
Acting senior commander Brig. Gen. Matthew Eichburg previously served with 1AD from 2006-2009 when it was headquartered in Germany, as well as during two deployments with the division.
During that time, Eichburg initially served as the Executive Officer for 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade in 2006 and then transitioned to serve as the Brigade S-3 Operations Officer in 2007.
"To be a part of the division's history across multiple continents is incredible. The increased opportunities for training here at Fort Bliss demonstrate that this was absolutely the right place for us to be, not to mention the welcome we received in becoming a part of the City of El Paso,” said Eichburg.
“If someone told me 11 years ago I would be a part of the Old Ironsides history at this level, I would never have believed it. It is an honor beyond belief,” he added.
The start of the division’s move to El Paso began in 2005, when the Pentagon determined that the division should move in accordance with the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission’s recommendations.
The commission recommended developing Fort Bliss from an institutional training post to a major mounted maneuver training installation with the capacity for heavy armored units. With a vast 1.12 million acres of training area available, there was more than enough real estate to accommodate the 1st Armored Division’s 11,500 incoming troops.
The division did not move as a whole, as it was tasked with several deployments at the time, according to Kari Atkinson, Director of the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss Museum.
“From 2003 to 2011, 1AD units were deployed to different countries at different times,” said Atkinson. “The physical move took about six years to complete because various units were moving back and forth, in and out. It was like moving a house one bedroom at a time.”
According to Master Sgt. Albert Apodaca, the Chief Ammunition NCO of G4 Plans & Operations, his unit - 4th Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division - was the first to stand up in 2006 (which was later reflagged to 4/1AD in March 2008). Apodaca was able to experience the Fort Bliss growth firsthand as a platoon sergeant.
“Before my first deployment from Bliss in 2006, it was a ghost town,” said Apodaca. “There was hardly any infrastructure, roads or buildings.”
“It got much busier after I returned from my second deployment in 2010, but now after nine years, it’s become a full blown working division,” he added. “It’s like night and day.”
By the end of 2010, all the major brigades had relocated to Fort Bliss. Division headquarters joined the subordinate brigades the following year in May 2011.
Major construction projects went underway at Fort Bliss as a part of the expansion, which transformed the post on several fronts including operations facilities, training areas and Soldier quality of life functions.
New facilities included the battalion, brigade and division headquarters, company operations facilities, barracks and motor pools. Training areas and ranges also had to be updated to accommodate armored vehicles such as tanks, Abrams, Bradleys, and aircraft.
On top of orchestrating the move of thousands of troops, the division had to transport thousands of pieces of equipment such as bayonets, humvees and generators, all of which required carefully planned logistics and coordination.
Fort Bliss is considered to be one of the largest continental U.S. expansions of any installation in the last several decades in terms of population size, construction size and end state growth. It is the largest Forces Command installation in the Army, the second-largest in the Department of Defense overall. With the growth of Fort Bliss, so came the growth of the city of El Paso.
“The city of El Paso has grown a lot too. It’s become a great place for Soldiers and families to live,” said Apodaca. “There is a city right outside the gate and it's more accommodating compared to other bases across America.”
On top of fueling the local economy, Fort Bliss directly employs more than 48,000 and supports more than 136,000 Texas jobs.
Due to the special relationship that Fort Bliss has with the city, the community worked with Fort Bliss to accommodate the influx of Soldiers and family members by building loops to connect the post to El Paso’s freeways and expanded transportation projects throughout the city.
Before saying Auf Wiedersehen, 1st Armored Division made Germany its home as part of the Army’s post-Vietnam reorganization in 1971. For the next 40 years, the division played a tremendous role as part of the American forces committed to a NATO defense of Europe.
1AD deployed to the Middle East in the early 90s to serve in major support operations including Operation Desert Shield in Saudi Arabia and Operation Desert Storm in Iraq.
The late 90s saw Iron Soldiers deploying to the Balkans for peacekeeping operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo. The new millennium saw the division deploy multiple times to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Enduring Freedom.
While the division’s move to El Paso and the opportunities for expansion at Fort Bliss are just shy of a decade, 2020 brings with it another major milestone later this summer. On July 15, the division, also known by the moniker Old Ironsides, will be turning the ripe old age of 80.