After a stint in the armed forces veterans are faced with where to restart civilian life, and an annual compilation by Military Times provides a resource to help them with the transition. The “Best for Vets: Places to Live” is among four annual listings put together by the military-focused news source, which also ranks best colleges, employers and franchises.
“What we do is we take Census-designated places,” Military Times reporter Natalie Gross said. “Those are the communities that get the [U.S. Census Bureau’s] American Community Survey, so we’re able to pull veteran data and population data on the places.”
Among the findings for best places to live post-military in 2019, New Braunfels is listed as No. 3 for veteran-friendly small cities—or those with a population below 100,000.
“We ranked 50 small cities, so to get No. 3 on the best competitive list is pretty good,” Gross said.
Making the grade
Military Times mined data from several organizations to determine the final rankings. Staffers looked at 282 small cities before narrowing the list down to the top 50.
Veteran and military culture and services, economic indicators and livability factors were among factors considered when compiling the list of veteran-friendly cities.
New Braunfels was also ranked based on its close proximity to Texas State University, which is ranked on the organization’s “Best for Vets: Colleges 2018,” as well as several businesses in the area that made high rankings on the “Best for Vets: Franchises 2018” listing.
In last year’s report Military Times ranked New Braunfels as the No. 5 veteran-friendly small city, compared to No. 17 the prior year. Gross attributes the higher ranking on this year’s findings to several factors, one of which includes changing the parameters for a small city from a population of fewer than 75,000 to fewer than 100,000.
“Also of note, the population numbers prior to this year were always based on the adult population for that city. This year, we did the total population,” Gross said.
Although New Braunfels first made Military Times’ veteran-friendly cities list for 2017, New Braunfels Mayor Barron Casteel said he feels the merit is nothing new.
“Volunteered service is something that we value in New Braunfels, and there is no greater service than military service. I think that’s just an extension of that value we have in New Braunfels, so I don’t think it’s something new,” Casteel said. “It’s something that is consistent with each generation of New Braunfelsers. We value our veterans, and we honor them, so we’re the kind of community that a veteran would obviously gravitate to because of that attitude.”
Vetearn Colton Read is originally from Arlington, Texas.
“What brought me here was after I lost my legs in the military I decided I wanted to stay somewhere that was really friendly to veterans and a place where amputees don’t feel like an outsider, and here in New Braunfels there are lots of amputees because of the Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio.”
The Center for the Intrepid is a rehabilitation facility to treat amputees and burn victims.
Read said he plans to stay in New Braunfels because of the sense of belonging he feels.
“When I went back to Arlington, I felt like I was an oddity. I just didn’t feel at home like I do in San Antonio and New Braunfels,” Read said.
Paying it forward
On the county level municipalities that serve New Braunfels offer a variety of services to former service members. Both Comal and Guadalupe counties have veteran service offices that help connect vets to the resources they need.
Judge Charles Stephens oversees the Veterans Treatment Court in Comal County that began operating in 2016.
“In a nutshell we’re authorized to work with veterans who have misdemeanor cases pending by the district attorney’s office,” Stephens said.
The court works with veterans and active-duty military personnel who have a history of traumatic brain injuries or experienced post-traumatic stress as an alternative to regular prosecution, probation or jail.
“The problems they’re having in the criminal justice system are related to what happened to them while they were in the battlefield or in the military,” Stephens said.
Each veteran who goes through the treatment court signs a performance contract, similar to conditions of probation. The requirements differ based on the person’s individual circumstances, Stephens said.
Each veteran is assigned a mentor who is trained by the Military Veterans Peer Network. Before graduation participants must complete a community service project, and the court monitors veterans for six months post-completion to help them transition out of the support net to be on their own, Stephens said.
“I think the military has a lot of support here,” Stephens said. “I’ve been working here as a judge for 15 years and for 14 years prior as a lawyer in Canyon Lake, and there’s always been positive support for the military. In my research there is somewhere in excess of 16,000 veterans in Comal County.”
Showing such support is Homes For Our Troops, an organization that is giving local disabled veterans a place to call home. Since 2004 more than 260 homes have been built nation-wide for the effort. Seven homes have been completed in New Braunfels with two more in progress. Recipients often have missing limbs, varying levels of paralysis, blindness and traumatic brain injuries.
HFOT President Tom Landwermeyer said the organization builds homes where the veterans choose to live. He said they often choose communities in warm climates, near a veteran support structure and close to excellent health care.
“Having built more homes in Texas than any other state, it is a popular state among our veterans for those reasons,” Landwermeyer said in an email. “We’re grateful to communities like New Braunfels in the Texas Hill Country that go all out to support our severely injured veterans and their families.”
Read lives in a home that was donated to him by Operation Finally Home, another nonprofit organization that provides mortgage-free homes to service members who have become wounded, ill or injured while serving in the military.
“In my neighborhood alone they’ve built three houses,” Read said. “Vintage Oaks has been so gracious as to donate the lots, and they said if you have a builder that can build it for free, we’ll get the lot for free.”
In addition Read said he enjoys taking his daughter to the handicap-accessible fishing pier at Landa Park.
“Before it was just a sidewalk and then some grass, and it just wasn’t very accessible,” Read said. “Then they built a pier that you can go out on, and it has the rails at a good height that it’s safe, and it’s paved, so I can actually [put the brakes on]my chair so that it’s still, and I can fish and not have to worry about rolling into the river.”
In addition to physical amenities, Read said he also appreciates the city-wide sentiments geared toward vets, such as the Fourth of July parade and the 9/11 memorial service that is held at the downtown gazebo.
“It’s a real touching thing to go there and just kind of pray and have a moment of silence and remember all the people that we lost on Sept. 11,” he said. “It’s a real touching event for me.”
More veterans on the way
According to Gross, New Braunfels’ ranking on the “Best of Vets” list could be a reason more veterans move to the area.
“Chambers [of commerce]will really tout this award, this ranking, just to show we are a place where veterans can come and feel a culture. They like to say they have a good culture for veterans and good job opportunities for veterans. In a lot of places veterans had better salaries than non-vets,” Gross said.
In New Braunfels the median veteran annual income is almost $10,000 more than nonveterans according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and Gross said having more veterans in a community is a benefit for local businesses.
“They make great employees,” Gross said. “You have a lot of employers out there that have veteran hiring incentives.”
New Braunfels Mayor Barron Casteel shares that sentiment.
“The veteran is the type of employee that has already exhibited extreme commitment, so … you’re hiring someone who has a greater commitment than the average person,” Casteel said.
Michael Meek, New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce President, said that while the local chamber does not have programs for specifically recruiting veterans, he feels the town has recently been put on the map as an attractive place to live and is drawing people from all walks of life.
“As America’s second fastest-growing city, New Braunfels has caught the attention of most rating agencies and media outlets the last few years,” Meek said. “When they start looking into the statistics of our community, they find the reasons why people of all ages and backgrounds are moving here.”