In the military, there’s the dream duty locations – Hawaii, Europe, Florida, and so on, depending on what your taste is. And, there are the locations that most try to avoid – and Laughlin AFB in Del Rio, Texas is one of those.
It’s been said many times by military folks here, Laughlin is the Air Force’s best force-shaping tool. In layman’s terms, “force-shaping” is synonymous with “trim the fat” or “to weed out”. In other words, the statement is really suggesting that the Air Force powers-that-be, in an effort to discharge the folks it doesn’t want anymore, simply would threaten to relocate them to Del Rio in hopes that they would leave the Air Force voluntarily. True or not, I’ve seen many families chose to leave the Air Force instead of relocate to Del Rio.
Who did you piss off? That was what one coworker (who had never been to Del Rio personally) asked when he heard that’s where I was headed before my family arrived over three years ago, implying that perhaps I drew the short stick in the bureaucratic game of duty location assignments – and that the Air Force was simply trying to weed me out. While Laughlin AFB doesn’t have the most glamorous mission of undergraduate flight training while other military bases actively train for warfighting, the surrounding community of Del Rio is what would make or break the deal for me. Assignment accepted.
After three years in Del Rio, the Air Force certainly did weed me and my family out, voluntarily. Not to avoid Del Rio, but instead rather to embrace the town further. We were ready to leave the military, but not Del Rio.
Most military people looked at me sideways when they heard the news of my family staying put in Del Rio after I exited the military. While the vast majority of the exiting force counts the days til they see this part of Texas in the rear-view mirror en-route to larger cities, higher-paying jobs, and cooler weather, they can’t seem to understand why we would stay.
If you’ve ever relocated a few times in your life, you know as well as I do that the people make or break the location, not the other way around. Of all the places I’ve lived, Del Rio – by a long shot – is home to the friendliest people. Texas, by-and-large, is home to nice people, especially in the more rural areas.
Growing up on the West Coast, people aren’t friendly. It’s not uncommon to simply feel like you are just in their way - an inconvenience - and sucked into the rat-race of keeping-up-with-the-Jones’. In Del Rio, no one cares if you drive a $70K SUV (although you might not fit in…) or an old clunker that is one lug nut from not passing inspection this year. You can own a $300K home, or rent a $600 apartment, and your kids can attend the same school. And, vastly different from the beaches of Southern California, you can strike up a conversation with a total stranger – anywhere – they’ll tell you they’re life story, simply for the sake of having a neighborly conversation. Folks are genuine, here.
In Del Rio, I’ve had total strangers at the downtown creek-side park invite me to their barbecues. No hidden agenda, just hospitality. When my daughter was born, every lady in H-E-B (local grocery store) found their way to the aisle I was on to meet her. On her first birthday party, our house was so full we had to move most of it outside with the sprinklers on (it was hot). Her second one we held at the church, a smashing hit. Not because she is all-that (she thinks she is, like all two-year-olds), but because Del Rio is a family where a sense of community is important. If you embrace it, it will embrace you.
Dirty, dusty border town? Sure, it is somewhat of a desert climate – hot and relatively dry – but the area does have its green season most years with plenty of rainfall. It also gets a mild winter from time to time – but rarely snow.
Unlike many desert locations, however, the area also has numerous rivers, Lake Amistad, and Hill Country all within an hour’s drive. Sunrises and sunsets are beautiful, and wide-open spaces are plentiful and filled with wildlife. It’s common to see deer in your front yard in town, and just out of town you can find aoudad (big-horn sheep), numerous types of deer, birds, hogs, varmints, and mountain lions.
Lake Amistad is one of the clearest lakes in Texas and straddles the international border with unlimited gorgeous desert scenery and great fishing and boating. The Devils River is also a paradise with ultra-pure waters. The Pecos River and Rio Grande both make big cuts into the desert plateau and are frequented by kayakers. Many locals float down portions of the Rio, as well as other local Hill Country rivers like the Nueces, Sabinal, and Frio Rivers.
Del Rio is one of the safest cities in Texas. With a crime rate of about half of the national-average according to City-Data.com, Del Rio is an extremely secure town. For a population of about 35,000 residents, law enforcement departments include Del Rio Police Department, San Felipe-Del Rio School District Police Department, Val Verde County Sheriff’s Department, Val Verde County Constable, U.S. Border Patrol and Customs, Texas Highway Patrol, Texas Game Warden, U.S. Park Rangers, FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshalls. There might be a few I missed, but the point is that criminal activity is highly discouraged due to the shear number of law enforcement officials scattered throughout the town.
I never worry about my wife and daughter out and about anytime during the day or night – crime is so rare, especially violent crime. Even Acuña – Del Rio’s sister-city across the border – is frequented by Del Rioans daily with few problems.
The Cost of Living
Cheap! While the housing rental market is rather inflated due to Laughlin AFB, the rest of the town remains very affordable. Even if you want to buy a house, it’s rather inexpensive, although property taxes and utilities are slightly high in Texas compared to some other states. However, like much of West Texas, you don’t need a high-paying job to live comfortably.
While high-paying jobs outside of federal employment are hard to find, the cost of living allows modest salaries to meet the needs of most families. Some say that it’s only inexpensive because they’re nothing to spend your money on – but that’s far from the truth. My wife and daughter stay busy every day in the community enjoying free – or very inexpensive – entertainment and activities.
While Del Rio doesn’t have a wide variety of shopping choices, prices are low. Movie tickets are between $4-6 a pop. The Whitehead Museum, Del Rio Community Garden, Civic Center, Del Rio Chamber of Commerce, The Dr. Alfredo Gutierrez Amphitheater, the Lake Amistad Recreation Area routinely hold free events. The Paul Poag Theatre also holds regular musicals and other shows at reasonable prices.
Too many people never see Del Rio – they give up the opportunity before they even arrive. Others do relocate with the military or federal service, reluctantly, but come close-minded and ignorant. They stay holed up on on base at Laughlin AFB or in their house in the north part of the city and Del Rio doesn’t even get a fair shot. If my wife and I came to Del Rio with the preconceived notion that we would hate it (like many do), then I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now. But, like the story of a Game Warden’s wife I once met here in Del Rio – she came here kicking and screaming, and left here in tears.
I’ve found that the culture in Del Rio is accepting of newcomers. Not newcomers that want to make Del Rio a big city, but newcomers that want to contribute to the community – those who take pride in their new city and its culture. Many Del Rioans want to see the city grow through new ideas and opportunities. They welcome – with open arms – families that want to help make a positive impact on the community. Because of this, there are an unlimited number of opportunities for community involvement that will help you and your family in transforming this duty location in a home.
We gave it a shot, embraced it, and in turn it embraced us.
Dan Schreiber is a freelance meteorologist with experience