By John Dendy
RHEIN MAIN AIR BASE, Germany Now simply an extension of Frankfurt’s busy international airport, this small air base is the last vestige of an American military presence in Germany’s bustling financial center.
But the mission here for the son of a San Diego couple is far from obscure or obsolete. Air Force Lt. Col. Paul M. Fortunato, son of Charles and Rose Fortunato, San Diego, is one of more than 2,000 soldiers and airmen providing for passengers and cargo headed for points east in support of Operation “enduring Freedom.”
The base’s legacy as the hub of both the Berlin and Bosnian airlifts of 1963 and 1993 is overshadowed by the last remnants of a lifestyle American GIs carved for themselves here. The ”burg” of Rhein Main on Frankfurt’s outskirts has a childcare center and security force. The base population is only 2,700. But 30 military and federal organizations are entrenched here. Many offices are one-person operations.
Fortunato is a medical flight commander and chief of dental services with people who work and in some cases live from the base. All the positives or tension of work and home life lie near the meeting point of Germany’s mighty Rhein and Main Rivers.
“I’m directly responsible for the healthcare of more than 3,000 Air Force active duty and family members, as well as active duty members from all the other service branches,” he said. “As chief of dental services, I’m responsible for delivery of dental healthcare services to these same people. I also provide professional medical and dental expertise to the commander at Rhein Main.”
Rhein Main will close. Two military bases in Germany will absorb its workload by 2004. Then the Frankfurt property will be used to expand what many travelers know well as the busiest airport in Europe. Fortunato has numerous issues to work on here until then.
“Our facility’s support to Operation Enduring Freedom is paramount. We care for those folks going downrange and coming back from their tours of duty, ensuring their health-care before and after,” he said. “We directly support all missions in the European theater and downrange.”
The base is of nostalgic interest as more than American-style settlement in the heart of Germany. The U.S. military has long since presented the property’s massive stone Barlin Airlift monument as a gift to German authorities. This symbol of mid 20th Century American-German cooperation is visible from the Autobahn.
Fortunato and the townsfolk of Rhein Main also enjoy themselves. They do so when not working odd hours that tend to depend on the volume of intercontinental air travelers and catastrophes that keep them employed. A local here can change clothes, get in a car and go on an instant European vacation as soon as they accelerate out of Rhein Main’s gate.
“Life at Rhein Main, besides the military aspect, is extremely favorable. The central European location allows for unlimited travel and experiencing of the European culture,” said Fortunato. “I’ve visited the majority of countries in Europe. It’s been a wonderful experience for my spouse and our children.”
Rhein Main is going away with a bang. Until then, townsfolk like Fortunato are quietly doing Halloween at Frankenstein’s castle, hitting Germany’s Autobahn and running the U.S. military’s busiest airlift terminal.