Among the 11.5 million who visit San Antonio each year are proud young military members donning their pristine uniforms. The fresh-faced soldiers are as much a part of the fabric of San Antonio as its famed San Antonio River Walk, the Alamo or even its delicious Tex-Mex food and friendly people.
For some 300 years, San Antonio has been known as Military City USA because of its strong, consistent military presence. Today, the Alamo City is home to one of the nation's largest active and retired military populations.
Many of those visiting San Antonio in uniform are on break from Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, the gateway for the Air Force. Most Fridays, between 500 and 900 Air Force trainees from across the country graduate to Airmen after 7½ weeks of Basic Military Training on the Lackland parade grounds with their families and friends there to witness.
“The grand majority of the graduates and their families celebrate by visiting the River Walk and other points of interest downtown. We hear stories all the time about strangers buying lunch for a graduate and his or her family, as a token of their appreciation for their service, said Nancy Hunt, executive director of Paseo del Rio Association, the nonprofit that promotes and preserves the River Walk. “The Paseo del Rio Association salutes all of our troops, both active and retired…”
On the Fourth of July weekend, Airman John Labrada, a new Air Force graduate from Miami, explored the River Walk and Rivercenter Mall with his mother. It was a nice reprieve after 7½ weeks of basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland Air Force Base. “Everyone here is nice,” said Labrada, 23. “There’s a lot do see and do. I have never seen a mall this big.” Many military members enjoy discounts offered by businesses that are eager to serve them and grateful for the business.
After his graduation at Lackland, Gabriel Edmonson, 20, of Nashville, and his family and friends enjoyed a meal at Acadiana Café, a Cajun restaurant near Lackland Air Force Base. “The food was great and they gave us two free desserts because I was in uniform,” he said. His family made their way to downtown San Antonio for shopping and a movie at Rivercenter Mall and a Rio San Antonio Cruises riverboat tour. The next day, he and his family enjoyed SeaWorld San Antonio, where they got on rides, watched shows and ate smoked ribs.
“San Antonio is a really nice city,” said Barbara Edmonson, Gabriel Edmonson’s mother. “It was pretty hot being in July, but the people there are so friendly. They gave us directions when we needed them and even offered them without us asking for them. The tour guide on the boat ride – Danny – was absolutely great. He explained everything well and he was funny!”
The Edmonson family stayed at a hotel near Lackland Air Force Base, not far from SeaWorld. They quickly became enthusiastic tourists through much of the city, exploring downtown San Antonio, the River Walk and other local favorite places, not to mention eating a variety of food, from Cajun to barbecue.
For some San Antonio visitors who made the trip for the Air Force graduation, it’s not the first or the last visit to city. The trip was Barbara Edmonson and her husband’s second visit to the Alamo City. The first trip was in April for an overnight business trip that just so happened to be during Fiesta, the city’s 10-day festival of parades, carnivals, live music and more. “Oh my God, that was the best! The festival was really, really big. And the food was so good!”
San Antonio’s long military history has roots that reach as far back as when barracks were established at the San Antonio de Valero Mission (later, the Alamo). San Antonio also was part of a major military training effort in Texas during World War I. In World War II, the third and fourth armies that provided basic and advanced training in several Southern and Western states, respectively, were headquartered at San Antonio.
Despite many changes in San Antonio’s military, the undeniable presence remains strong. Ten years ago, the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure Round combined the Army’s Fort Sam Houston functions with Randolph and Lackland Air Force Bases to form the largest joint base in the Department of Defense, according to the most current Economic Statement from Joint Base San Antonio.
With a payroll of $8.6 billion, Joint Base San Antonio in fiscal year 2013 serviced more Department of Defense students than any other installation. It's also home to a total 55,216 military members and the military’s largest medical center. As Airman Gabriel Edmonson took a break from shopping and sat at a table on the River Walk, another new airman, Romero Acosta of Omaha, Nebraska, passed by. He was carrying shopping bags.
“Acosta! You enjoying it?” Edmonson asked him. “Oh, yeah!” he replied, as his family looked on smiling. Edmonson said he is fortunate that his first military assignment will be in San Antonio. “There is a lot to do here and I will get time to do it,” he said. “I am a Spurs fan, so I plan on catching some games.”