Even modest deployments of the vast US military leave a large footprint. In a country the size of Iceland, and a town the size of Keflavík, the economic and cultural impact of their presence is still evident today, ten years after they withdrew. Local residents built their lives and careers around working in the US military installation, and when the base was decommissioned, the effects on the community were difficult.
Neville Young came to Iceland in 1971, and worked on the base from the mid 80s until its closure in 2006. We asked him a few questions about his career on the base, how the base closure hit the town, and what the return of US forces to Keflavík could mean.
When did you move to Keflavík?
I moved to Keflavík in 1971 and didn’t know much about the base, but it was a big thing around here. A lot of locals were working on the base. The Icelanders would pick up the American television station, so the people who lived in the town liked it for that. They’d also have American music groups coming onto the base to play in the clubs. The Icelanders could only get onto the base if somebody invited you.
What was your job on the base?
“I was a fire inspector on the base for twenty years, working for the Keflvavík fire department that was situated on the base. We had about 120 people working for us: firemen, snow removal, and also the arresting gear—that’s to slow down F15s if their brakes fail, they drop a hook onto a cable to stop them, like they do on aircraft carriers. We handled the cargo as well.
How was it to be around when the base closed, and the US left?
Everybody said it would be dramatic when the base left, with regards to work. But they seemed to get over it quite fast. Most of the buildings on the base are used for other things now. There were a tough few years, but it wasn’t as bad as people thought it was going to be. I think about 65% of the people who worked on the base were actually from Hafnarfjörður, Reykjavík and Kópavogur, so it didn’t really hit this community as badly as everyone thought. But obviously it had some repercussions, with them all leaving.
Have you heard about the US coming back?
I heard about it through the news media, but they haven’t really taken much notice of it. I had a conversation with someone I know who still works in the military, and he said they’d probably just have relief squads up here, like they have been doing. They send squads up here for about month just to practice, and they think they might do it that way instead of moving back in. Just having relief squads from different NATO countries.
Could you imagine the US returning in similar numbers to the 80s and 90s deployment?
There’d be no way. They don’t have the facilities, now. All the apartments on the base have been rented out to university students and other people. A lot of the other buildings have been sold off or rented out—there’s a college up there. The gymnasium and all that, they’re all being used now. I don’t know how they would do that. They’d have to make some kind of agreement to use the facilities that they left behind. There are two hangars left—hangar 831, that the helicopter guys have been using, then there’s 885. That’s the biggest hangar—it’s enormous, you can see it from the road. That one’s falling to bits. They’ve been talking about demolishing it because it’s unsafe.