The Military Presence in San Antonio San Antonio “San Antonio has always been a military town. Ever since I can remember. We have all those bases. In case of nuclear war we’d probably be one of the first ones to get hit. It goes along with having those bases. San Antonio has always depended on the bases for jobs.” Jose Siller, an activist in Communities and an employee for 32 years at Kelly Air Force Base, sat in a desk chair at the downtown office of COPS. It was nearly 5 p.m., and Siller had come straight from work to the COPS office to get ready for a meeting that night. “I volunteered for the Air Force in 1948,” Siller said. “Got out in 1952. I came out and filed my application at Kelly. I was only out a month when I started to work there.” Siller raised a family of 12 on the typist’s salary he earns at the Air Force base. “I feel myself to be lucky to have that job at Kelly.” San Antonio is a city of 833,000. The federal government supports directly and indirectly about half this population the soldiers and civilian workers at San Antonio’s five military bases and four other Defense Department facilities, the retired military, the private sector workers whose businesses serve military employees, and the families of all those people. “One way of looking at it,” said San Antonio peace activist and writer John Hackett, “is that the whole city is a huge military base with pockets of civilian economy.” “Whether people like or approve of the kind of impact the military has had in San Antonio at this point that’s a moot question,” Sonia Hernandez, the president of COPS, asserted. “We are dependent on it . . . so much that if there were any major cuts the whole city would go into a state of shock. Any time This is the fourth in a series of articles by Nina Butts examining Texas’ role in the military-industrial complex. The series is funded by a Carey McWilliams Fellowship from the Nation Institute. By Nina Butts Presidential candidates start talking about cutting military spending people get very nervous around here. Those who talk about a strong defense are popular. Reagan is popular. Tower is very strong here.” No major spending cut has ever been inflicted on San Antonio’s military bases, but San Antonians still speak painfully of the closing in 1966 of the Atomic Energy Commission Medina facility in nearby Medina County. Only 700 people worked there, and the AEC shut Medina when its task final assembly of nuclear weapons was shifted to the Pantex plant in Amarillo. “Any fluctuation [in military spending] is devastating for our community,” Hernandez said. “When Medina was closed all of a sudden all of that money spent in the city was cut off.” The military bases put $2.3 billion a year in federal funds into San Antonio and crisscross the city. Near the center of town is Fort Sam Houston, an Army medical training center, hospital, and burn clinic. Just outside of town, to the east, is Randolph Air Force Base, a school for officers. On the south side is Brooks Air Force Base, called the “aeromedical, arm” of the Air Force. Brooks is a medical training and research center that tests, among other things, the effect on the human body of flying. If you drive southwest out of central San Antonio on U.S. Highway 90, the city quickly fans out in cookie-cutter subdivisions, but then a set of enormous airplane hangars appears Kelly Air Force Base, and you come to exit signs for Kelly and Lackland bases. These two bases form the largest military community in San Antonio. At Lackland every recruit in the U.S. Air Force receives six weeks of basic training. About 70,000 people a year jump hurdles and swing across cement ponds on ropes and learn to march in time with other recruits there. Lackland also trains officers, military police, and guard dogs, and teaches English to foreign military personnel. The base has 2,000 civilian and 18,000 military personnel. Next door to Lackland is Kelly Air Force Base. Opened in 1917, Kelly is the oldest continuously active U.S. Air Force base. Its nondescript cinderblock buildings are interrupted by white mission-style buildings shaded by elm trees. “We have a saying in Spanish,” said San Antonio City Council member Maria Berriozabal, “Que no se acabe Kelly: Let Kelly never end.” Because Kelly is one of the five Air Force Logistics Centers, in charge of part of the Air Force’s maintenance, purchasing, and distribution needs, it hires far more civilian workers than most military bases. Kelly has 17,000 civilian employees and only 4,000 military personnel. The other bases in San Antonio combined have 10,000 civilian workers. San Antonio’s population is 53% Mexican American; Kelly’s workers are 52% Mexican American. “Kelly Air Force Base that’s my constituency,” Berriozabal said. “. . I’m a strong supporter of the nuclear freeze. I think we’re going to do a disappearing act if we don’t watch it. I’m very concerned . . . the Mexican American that’s the farthest thing from their minds. They’re worried about chuckholes and dropping out of the eighth grade.” Berriozabal explained the significance of the jobs at Kelly. “Many of my constituents and many Hispanics in San Antonio work for the federal service and they started working our men mostly in civil service when they came from the Second World War. And that was a new beginning economically for Hispanics in San Antonio. Before that time they were working on the farms. “That has created a sizeable middle class in San Antonio the economic stability that the bases provided. They provided for the first time in the history of many families a stable income. When you were out with the crops or working in menial work, pecan shelling or whatever, that was not stable employment. “Right now you have men . . . who are first generation retirees among Hispanics. Our people never retired before; you worked the fields until you couldn’t. And now there’s retirement and there’s pay . . . you are able to send your children to high school, you are THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9
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