News: Thousands of Killeen’s Army implants have become proud, permanent neighbors
Story by Sgt. Ken Scar
KILLEEN, Texas - The Army transfers thousands of soldiers in and out of Fort Hood - one of the largest military bases in the world - every year, making the city of Killeen an inevitable stopover for a huge number of soldiers during their careers.
A considerable number of those soldiers have grown so fond of Killeen during their Army-mandated time here that it evolved from being a simple layover to their final destination. In fact you’d be hard pressed to find a single city block that didn’t have at least one veteran living on it.
“Killeen has the highest percentage of veterans than any city in the United States,” said Killeen Mayor Dan Corbin, who was transplanted here by the Army himself, in 1971. “The population in Killeen increased by 47 percent between 2000 and 2010. The assigned strength on Fort Hood did not increase in that time, but the population did because people like living here.”
Corbin, who is stepping down as mayor in May, said his initial assignment to Fort Hood came as a bit of a shock.
“I was a lieutenant in Vietnam and I asked to be assigned any place east of the Mississippi river, because I wanted to make sure they had a wide enough area that I could get what I wanted,” he said with a short laugh. “Someone who failed geography sent me to Fort Hood.”
Staff Sgt. Jim Barbour was ordered to Fort Hood in 1974. He was a hardened combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient with more than 3,000 flight hours as a door gunner in Vietnam for the 68th Assault Helicopter Company, 145th Combat Aviation Battalion. He had moved on to being a Russian language linguist for the Army Security Agency in Japan, and was none too thrilled about his new duty station.
“I hated Fort Hood. Everything was either in your building or five miles down the road,” said Barbour from the living room of the home he’s lived in for 38 years, which sits just three blocks away from one of Fort Hood’s main gates.
The city has grown exponentially during his time here, he explained. Now there are four grocery stores, dozens of restaurants, a large mall, and just about anything else he needs within a few minutes’ drive.
“When I moved to this town it was 30,000 people,” he said. “Now it’s 130,000. That’s change. I came from Chicago, and Killeen is more like a city now. It happens so slow you don’t even really notice it.”
Retired Maj. Silas Duncan got stationed at Fort Hood in 1979, after a stellar career as an aid for a string of history-making general officers including General of the Army Omar Nelson Bradley, Gen.Creighton William Abrams, Jr., and Gen. William Childs Westmoreland.
He grew up in a small farming community in northern Texas, so he didn’t see Fort Hood as a downgrade.
“It was the first time the Army stationed me in Texas,” he said. “We bought our house unfinished, with almost two acres of land. Killeen had maybe 30,000 people in it then and we were way out in the country.”
“Now the town has come out and passed us,” he laughed; adding that it’s growth has been good for vets. “Killeen is a great place because they built it for soldiers. Everything you can think of that you’d want in a big city, we have here in Killeen.”
“Killeen is an ideal environment for a vet,” agreed Barbour. “You have access to all of the Army services and medical care, plus it’s in the middle of Texas and Texas has everything.”
Travis Davis, a traffic management specialist at the Fort Hood rail yard who spent seven years as a soldier before separating from the Army in 1993, rattled off a list of places within an easy drive as one of the reasons he moved back here in 1996.
“If you consider a tank of gas, there’s lots of stuff to do. Waco and Fort Worth have great zoos. You can go to the Johnson Space Center, the coast, Padre Island, Hill Country, the wineries in Fredericksburg, the Alamo ... all within four or five hours, and that’s a short drive in Texas,” he chuckled.
Davis’ co-worker, Jerome Smith, is a retired sergeant who served in Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and was stationed at Fort Hood twice during his Army career. Like so many others, he had no intentions of settling here ... at first.
“When I got out [in 1992] I didn’t think I wanted to be here, but it kind of grew on me. Most of the people you deal with here know what you’ve been through, and you can relate to them. For me it’s much easier to talk to a soldier than to talk to anybody, because once you’re a soldier you’re always a soldier.”
Kevin Wayne Stewart is a heavy equipment operator at the Fort Hood rail yard who retired from the Army in 2008 after surviving the Gulf War and four tours of Iraq. He received the Purple Heart for wounds suffered when the bullet from an enemy’s AK47 went through his right leg. He was stationed at Fort Hood for nine years, and said his reason for staying after he retired is pretty simple.
“I can ride my motorcycle year-round here.”
Stewart, Smith and Davis all work together for the Fort Hood Directorate of Logistics. Their station is run by a group of 20 civilians; 17 of which are veterans.
“There aren’t a lot of bad things about Killeen,” said Smith. “Except they don’t really have a lot of industry here so you’re pretty much dependent on the military for jobs.”
Mayor Corbin said that’s something the town is actively trying to change in the face of the drastic downsizing that is underway in the Army.
“First of all I think we should be grateful that the wars are winding down,” he said. “It’s nice to know that we have a ready work force that has talent and skills, and that in itself is attracting employers to look at this area more and more. The City of Killeen is spending approximately a million and a half dollars a year on economic development issues. We have a whole team of people convincing prospective employers to locate their businesses here - we’re very focused on that.”
That’s good news for soldiers transitioning out of the Army who might want to stick around for a while. As for those that are already settled in, there are no plans to leave.
“I’ll stay here until the day I die, and they have to move me out to the veterans’ cemetery,” said Stewart, smiling. “I already got my spot picked out.”