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San Antonio Express-News

Welcoming Ceremony Today For Army South; Old BAMC, New Quality Of Life Await Those Moving From Puerto Rico

Sig Christenson

October 31, 2003
Copyright © 2003 San Antonio Express-News. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - At the end of congested Avenida Franklin D. Roosevelt, past the young men who sell bottled water, bananas and newspapers along the street, is a fork that splits like four fingers.

The third road, which juts ahead and slightly to the left, passes a large prison ringed by a shiny razor wire fence. That's the path to Fort Buchanan, and Lt. Col. Axel Martinez is the last trooper with U.S. Army South still taking it - though not for much longer, and with no regrets about leaving.

"I think Puerto Rico is a great place to come and vacation," he said, standing with his wife, Isabel, in front of the colorful seal that marks the main entrance to Fort Buchanan. "Long term, for the military, living in Puerto Rico is not a good choice."

Soldiers with Army South no longer will have to worry about living in Puerto Rico, a land of great beauty, stark contrasts and a history profoundly influenced by the Spanish-American War.

The command has moved to San Antonio and stands up today as a major subordinate unit of Forces Command in a 4 p.m. ceremony outside the old Brooke Army Medical Center.

The arrival of the command, which reaches 32 countries and 14 territories around the Caribbean basin, has been touted as a big plus for Fort Sam Houston. A $25 million revamp of the old BAMC and a $15 million renovation of one of two Beach Pavilion complexes comes as the 2005 base-closure round approaches.

But San Antonio is welcomed by soldiers such as Martinez, who'll stay in Puerto Rico until his son, Anthony, 17, graduates from high school next spring.

"I think the move is positive for the military and civilian community in terms of our safety and security, and in terms of being welcomed," he said.

The Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce sent a 42-member delegation to Puerto Rico in February that included city officials, bankers, mortgage and real estate brokers, hospital executives and educators.

"The strangest question I received was where the best place was to stable their horse," the chamber's Alan Kramer said.

To be sure, there are things Martinez, a native of Shirley, Mass., and his family will miss about Puerto Rico.

They love horseback riding on the beach. They'll also leave good friends.

But they'll no longer have to worry about high crime or spending hours and even days waiting to see a doctor. Occasional power outages will be a thing of the past, as will daily battles on roads clogged with cars and trucks leaving thick, black smoke hanging over virtually every intersection.

The cost of living in San Antonio generally will be lower.

A gallon of regular gasoline costs about a dime or so more in Puerto Rico. A head of lettuce and a gallon of milk are almost $1 more. A Toyota Corolla S runs $19,118 at a dealership in Carolina, near San Juan. The same car in San Antonio sells for about $15,800.

Quality of life played a big role in the Pentagon's decision to move Army South. Civilians, soldiers and their dependents in Puerto Rico had trouble finding affordable homes, waited months to get a phone and found it hard to find jobs.

Friction long has existed between the military and some islanders, who have chafed over American influence in Puerto Rico since the United States obtained it from Spain in 1898.

"There's a small group in Puerto Rico that doesn't support us, and the (local) government hasn't handled that very effectively," Martinez said.

A number of Puerto Ricans either were unaware of Army South's existence or they did not know it had moved to Texas. But on a slow night at Supermercado Gigante in Rio Grande, east of San Juan, manager Alfredo Aquino Carbonel already was thinking of the customers he stood to lose.

"Once you learn how to live on something like the Army being here, the Navy, it's different," Ramon Martes, 67, of Rio Grande, said as he stood next to Carbonel, acting as a translator.

"You're used to that."

Martinez, in turn, looks forward to his family's new life. He'll see more of his parents, who live in Killeen, and he compares his move to Texas with visiting the State Fair.

"It's that old Big Tex kind of welcome to San Antonio," he said. "It's a warm welcome. 'We appreciate what you do for America and what you do for the world, and we're here to serve you because you're serving us.'

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