By Rebecca Rose
Killeen Daily Herald
As Fort Hood makes its own effort to expand beyond its reach, cities besides Killeen, Harker Heights and Copperas Cove are feeling the effects. To the east, Belton, Salado and Temple are recognizing the influence of Fort Hood on their communities, and looking at some new ways of responding to military residents and their needs.
On Thursday, to kick off the annual Fourth of July celebrations, the city of Belton hosted a barbecue in Yettie Polk Park. Alongside residents and city officials decked out in summer attire were the unmistakable uniforms of Fort Hood soldiers, accompanied by their friends and families, an immediate reminder that Belton is now a strong part of the ever-growing Fort Hood community.
The growth of Belton's military community prompted the city to take a new look at its relationship not just with Fort Hood, but with the soldiers and families living within the city.
Jay Taggart has been chair of the Military Relations Committee, part of the Belton Chamber of Commerce, since 2000.
"As a community, we really weren't doing a lot," Taggart said, reflecting on the city's relationship with Fort Hood a decade ago. "We had soldiers march in parades, but I didn't feel like we were going out of our way to develop those relationships."
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, things changed. With the military engaged in two wars, and with multiple deployments becoming more and more routine, life for military families dramatically transformed.
The city took notice, Taggart said.
"The reality of deployments set in," he said. "I knew Belton could do more. We had a lot more to offer."
Starting in 2006, the Military Childhood Education Coalition conducted a series of community-based seminars. MCEC brought representatives together from several industries, including health care, businesses and local governments to learn more about military life in the wake of multiple deployments, or what they termed "Living in the New Normal (LINN)."
Taggart and other city officials point to the MCEC conference as a key moment in the evolution of Belton's relationship with its military community.
"They talked to us about these multiple deployments and the kind of support we need," Taggart explained.
That meeting prompted the members of the city and chamber to start their own LINN committee.
Stephanie O'Banion is president of the Belton Chamber of Commerce. She said the MCEC conference also helped the chamber realize one simple thing about how to reach the city's expanding military community.
"We didn't need to tell them what we had," she said, "We needed to ask them what they needed.
"Our community has such a huge heart for military, and deep compassion. But sometimes it's hard to know how to help. That was probably the biggest hurdle. You want to do so much, but you don't know how."
In 2007, Belton began holding a series of town hall meetings to find out, from military residents themselves, what needs they had and how the city could help address them.
"Our No. 1 goal is to have them ask questions, let us know about needs not being met," she said.
Taggart, a former BISD school member, said involving the schools was key. School district representatives attend every meeting, giving military parents a forum.
One of the immediate needs the meetings helped identify was a lack of child care available at times that fit early morning shifts on post.
BISD then reached out to other local organizations, including the ASYMCA, which now provides early morning and afternoon care for BISD parents.
"Asking was the best thing we did," O'Banion said.
Four years ago, Belton was designated as a "Fort Hood Good Neighbor." Today, approximately 1,000 military families call Belton their home, according to O'Banion.
The chamber puts out a packet for military families, containing information about city resources, churches, schools, and more, with relevant names and phone numbers. Taggart said they update it frequently, based on feedback from residents who use it.
The town hall meetings have evolved into "Meet Belton for Military Families" night, featuring a hot dog dinner. Held twice a year, city officials recognize the events as one of the best ways of connecting to the needs of an ever-changing military population.
"Every time, we learn something new," O'Banion said. "We walk away with something else we can do better."
"It has made us a better community," Taggart said. "It has opened up our churches, businesses and schools to the awareness that we can't just accept fact that it's nice that those people are here."
"We have to be reaching out, letting those people know that we are here," he said. "Not just as a community, but as a nation."
Even the smallest communities in the Killeen area feel the impact of Fort Hood's growth during the last 10 years. Salado is now home to more than 200 retirees, nearly 10 percent of the village's population.
Salado ISD has 58 students from military families enrolled across four campuses, an increase from 47 in 2007.
According to Superintendent Michael Novotny, serving children of active-duty families is a challenge the district routinely addresses.
"The main area of need for the families is when the spouse is deployed," Novotny said. "It's more of an emotional need."
The district provides a military counseling group and counselors who are familiar with how deployments affect young children and teens. But the district doesn't just focus on deployment-related issues.
Novotny said they recognize the specific challenges that come with being part of a mobile community, working to address issues that arise with students who deal with frequent transfers.
"Change is a challenge sometimes for kids," Novotny said. "We make sure we're taking care of them academically, emotionally and socially."
While Temple's economy is less dependent on Fort Hood than some other Central Texas cities, the post's impact is still widely felt by Temple residents.
City Manager David Blackburn said the influence is noticeable just from the influx of military residents opting to move out to Temple.
"I continue to see, just by sheer numbers, that (Fort Hood) brings people to the area," Blackburn said. "We cannot help but be impacted. They're a part of our community. They are our friends and neighbors; their kids go to our schools."
"We see many soldiers and their families that make Temple their home," Mayor William A. Jones said. "I see soldiers where I live. They are interconnected within our community. You just can't separate it.
"The military is a huge piece of what we do. We're connected, even though we're the largest city farthest away."
Jones said one of the ways Temple and other cities reach out to their respective military communities is through the Adopt-A-Unit program. Several city departments have adopted commands, including the city manager's office.
Adopt-A-Units are way for communities to get to know and understand soldiers, as well as a resource for military families, Jones said.
"The whole purpose is to form a link between civilians and the military unit," Jones said. "It's also an opportunity to get together, to make soldiers feel more at home.
"We see the impact that has because of the war we've been in for the past nine or 10 years. So we see those pictures. But it's not tanks, it's not war. It's people. It changes a community."
Contact Rebecca Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7548.