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Special Report: The top 5 best bases for airmen

Recreation, low-cost housing make these stations stand out

Jul. 21, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  

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Base Operations at Scott Air Force Base. The area has low housing prices, a low crime rate and top on-base services. (Karen Petitt / Air Force)

Methodology for ranking bases

To compile our ranking of 68 Air Force bases, we collected and analyzed hundreds of pieces of information.
Air Force Times evaluated statistics in a dozen categories: school quality, cost of living, housing costs, commissary size, base exchange size, size of on-base health care facilities, crime rates, commute times, pollution levels, climate, unemployment rates and sales taxes. We then assigned each category a score on a 10-point scale.
■ To come up with a school quality score, we used the website GreatSchools.com, a respected resource for ranking and comparing schools used by real estate agents and real estate websites such as Zillow and Realtor.com. GreatSchools evaluates schools on a 10-point scale based on a combination of their standardized test scores, whether students are improving from year to year, and college readiness, defined as how well students take and score on SAT and ACT tests, and their graduation rates. We searched for all rated schools within a 10-mile radius of each base and averaged their scores to come up with an overall school score.
■ We pulled information on cost of living, housing, crime rates, commute times, pollution levels, climate, unemployment rates and sales taxes from the website Sperling’s Best Places, which compiles demographic and other data on communities around the country. We used formulas to convert the raw data from each category into a 10-point scale. BestPlaces.net’s crime statistics had low numbers for low crime rates and high numbers for high crime rates. We converted the statistics so lower crime rates would result in higher scores for bases.
■ Sperling’s Best Places also provided data it collected on the size and type of on-base commissaries, exchanges and health care facilities, and rankings on a 10-point scale.
Of course, not all categories are equally important to service members. We’d wager school quality, for example, is a greater concern than the sales tax rate. So we weighted each category. Scores for the most important categories — schools, cost of living, housing and commissaries — were tripled. The next most important categories — crime, health care facilities, commute times and exchanges — were doubled in value. And the last four categories — pollution levels, climate, unemployment rates and sales taxes — got no additional weighting.
Finally, we added up the scores and stacked the bases.

No matter the service, no matter the era, one of the favorite pastimes of troops has always been comparing duty stations — griping about the lousy ones and singing the praises of the good ones.

Air Force Times is weighing in on this argument with the best tool at our disposal: cold, hard stats. We’ve looked at 68 stateside Air Force bases and their surrounding communities, and pulled together data on a dozen factors — everything from school quality to the local economy, crime rates to traffic, and climate to on-base amenities, such as commissaries.

See a map of all the bases

And when we tallied up the results, some surprising bases rose to the top of our list. Our top five bases may not get a lot of attention or be as glamorous a posting as, say, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. But they are diamonds in the rough and provide good places for airmen to raise families and entertain themselves, as they serve their country.

Here, based on Air Force Times research, are the Air Force’s best bases in the United States:

1. (tied) Scott Air Force Base, Illinois

One might not imagine that one of the two best bases in the Air Force can be found near the small town of Belleville, Illinois, a bucolic community of 44,000 in a St. Louis metro area of 2.8 million. But that’s exactly what Scott Air Force Base is.

“It’s kind of a hidden gem out there,” said Col. Kyle Kremer, commander of Scott’s 375th Air Mobility Wing. “You can pick and choose what works for you and your family. It’s unlike any other place I’ve been stationed.”

Airmen stationed at Scott, no matter whether they prefer city life or country life, can find a niche to make themselves at home, Kremer said.

“Depending on what lifestyle you prefer, you have the full spectrum,” Kremer said. “You can live to the east of the base, in the middle of corn fields. A number of people who work on base live in downtown St. Louis, particularly young couples without kids, [and] can go see the Cardinals, the Rams, Fox Theater [a performing arts center], all St. Louis has to offer. And then there’s the typical outstanding suburban life in the Fairview Heights area.”

Scott rose to the top of Air Force Times’ bases list due to several factors. Home prices there are some of the lowest in the country. Immediately surrounding Scott, the median home cost is $57,400, about one-third of the nationwide median home cost of $170,100, according to Sperling’s Best Places. In nearby Belleville, the median home cost is $76,300.

The monthly Basic Allowance for Housing at Scott runs from $855 for an airman basic without dependents, to $2,064 for a colonel with dependents. The monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the St. Louis area will set you back $756, on average, according to RentJungle.com.

And boasting a 70-bed hospital, a large commissary, and a large exchange with a mini-mall and a shoppette, on-base amenities at Scott are among the best in the Air Force.

Crime rates also are low, with score of 7 out of 10 — derived by averaging its violent crime rate and property crime rate, with a higher score indicating less crime in each area. Nationwide, the average crime score for Air Force bases is 6, meaning Scott is above-average. Schools within a 10-mile radius of Scott are decent, if not outstanding, with an average GreatSchools.com ranking of 7 out of 10 possible points.

Scott also gets some special visitors from time to time. The St. Louis Rams came to scrimmage on Scott’s parade field in 2012 and 2013, and Kremer said they’re working on another scrimmage this year. Military members get in free to watch those scrimmages, Kremer said.

Kremer said Scott has typical on-base amenities — pools, a youth center, a golf course, restaurants and outdoor recreation facilities where airmen can rent campers, boats and bouncy castles for the kids. Belleville also sponsors military appreciation days.

“I really believe the people in the Midwest are fantastic,” Kremer said.

Capt. Angel Vargas, a group practice manager for the 375th Medical Group at Scott, agrees. Vargas, who is originally from the Chicago area and was previously stationed at Los Angeles Air Force Base, said his first time living in a relatively rural community near Scott was “culture shock” — in a good way.

“It’s a tight-knit community,” Vargas said. “I could trust my daughter with whoever I meet. You can’t do that in the city. There’s literally cornfields right across the street from my housing. I’m not used to that. I’m used to concrete traps.”

Vargas lives in off-base military housing, and said his paycheck stretches a lot further than it did in L.A. Airmen who live close to Scott can easily find affordable housing, he said, and some even get a few acres of land out in the country for their horses.

“I know a lot of people who have farms,” Vargas said. “One is PCSing and is packing up their horses. I don’t hear that in L.A.”

Want to check out St. Louis’ nightlife, but live on base and don’t have a car? Just catch St. Louis’ MetroLink rail at the Shiloh-Scott station, which borders the base. That’s what Airman 1st Class Sarah Haynes, an intelligence analyst at Scott’s 375th Operations Support Squadron who lives in an on-base dorm, does.

“I went to the Yankees-Cards game” one night recently, Haynes said. “It’s two bucks for train tickets, I saw the Yankees play, the MetroLink drops you off right outside the base. As a single female airman, it’s the safest way, I feel, for a night in the city. Once you get out there, there’s a ton to do. You don’t really have to go look for them, you just find them.”

Scott has a program called the Single Airmen’s Initiative, which provides free trips and events for airmen up to E-4. Haynes said she visited Memphis with this program; other trips have taken airmen to Chicago, hiking in the Ozark Mountains, and up in hot air balloons. Haynes, who is on her first assignment, said that the activities sponsored by Scott have a tremendous impact on young airmen like herself.

“I’ve got single friends at other bases that don’t have that [program], and they pretty much just sit in their dorm rooms and play video games all day,” Haynes said. “At the end of the day, knowing people want you to have high morale makes a big difference in doing your job.”

Airmen can go skiing at the Hidden Valley Ski Area in Wildwood, Missouri, about an hour’s drive from Scott. Indianapolis and Nashville are also a few hours’ drive from Scott, close enough to spend a long weekend in the city.

Vargas said he enjoys taking his daughter to the St. Louis Zoo — which is not only free, but was recently named the second-best zoo in the country by USA Today. He enjoys museums and watching sports downtown and motorcycling in the country.

Haynes grew up with a strong interest in art in her hometown in Cincinnati. When she moved to Scott, she was pleased to find not only a large number of museums, theaters and a science center in St. Louis, but a thriving arts community in nearby Belleville, which has an annual festival called Art on the Square.

“I think it’s really unique for Smalltown USA,” Haynes said. “I didn’t expect to find that at Scott. I thought it would be the middle of nowhere, but it’s not. It’s flourishing.”

1. (tied) Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio

Similarly to Scott, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio enjoys low housing costs, a large commissary, a huge 300-bed medical center, and a large exchange with a mall and a shoppette. An above-average crime score of 7 out of 10, and decent commute times — an average one-way trip of 14 minutes, much less than the nationwide average commute of more than 25 minutes — combined to help land Wright-Pat at the top of the list, tied with Scott.

Capt. Matthew Hawkins, an engineer with the AC 130J program office there, said he and his wife, Capt. Caroline Hawkins, have grown to love Wright-Pat during their three years there.

“Coming to Wright-Pat, you’re in the middle of everywhere,” Hawkins said. “We are so close to major, larger cities that offer so much more. We can go to Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville — the list goes on and on of places accessible with a tank of gas.”

But Hawkins speaks most glowingly of nearby Dayton, and the close relationship its 143,000 residents have with the airmen stationed at Wright-Pat.

The Dayton Dragons minor league baseball team, for example, offer discounted tickets for service members, as does Dayton’s Schuster Performing Arts Center. The Hawkinses are associate board members at the local children’s science museum, the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, which partners with Wright-Pat to get service members’ input.

“Several people, while we’re out and about, recognize us as military and shake our hands,” Hawkins said. “They love us.”

The Hawkinses enjoy spending time in the Greene Town Center in Dayton, which offers shopping and mid- to high-end restaurants, as well as free concerts on the weekends.

“Being kind of young, we do frequent brewpubs,” said Hawkins. Both he and his wife are 30. “Brewing beers is becoming a big local thing in the Miami Valley. There’s a lot of new gastropub restaurants popping up in Dayton — a lot of new places to try and eat out at.”

Capt. Drew Chaney, who was stationed at Wright-Pat from 2004 to 2009, said the base’s gym facilities, exchange and commissary are as good as or better than other bases he has visited or been assigned to. And he spoke highly of the base’s medical center, which he said had reasonable wait times and even fit him in for laser eye surgery, though he was a low priority.

Chaney said several of his former co-workers finished their master’s degrees while at Wright-Pat, attending the nearby University of Dayton or Wright State University.

Even the base library is pretty well-stocked, Chaney said.

The average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Dayton is $641, according to RentJungle.com. An airman basic without dependents would receive $864 in BAH each month, and a colonel with dependents would receive $1,950 a month.

Airmen who are interested in their service’s history can visit the National Museum of the United States Air Force for free. The museum in June broke ground on an expansion that will eventually house the former Air Force One aircraft aboard which President Johnson was sworn in after President Kennedy’s assassination, as well as a Titan IV space booster rocket, the Lockheed C-130E Hercules, and other aircraft.

Thousands of runners — both military and civilian — run the annual Air Force Marathon at Wright-Patterson each September. The start and finish lines of that race are located at the museum.

Hawkins is likely to spend at most another two years at Wright-Pat before his next assignment. But he expects his work in acquisition will eventually draw him and his wife back to Dayton — and they’ll eagerly anticipate their possible return.

“When we leave here, we’ll look forward to coming back,” Hawkins said.

3. Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland

The Texas heat may be brutal in the summer, but Joint Base San Antonio and the surrounding area have plenty else that landed the base in the top five.

Lackland’s medical facilities are among the best in the military — and are about to get better. A new 681,000- square-foot medical treatment facility, to be called the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, is under construction and projected to be finished next year. The four-wing, three-story facility will serve more than 55,000 patients and house more than 25 outpatient clinics, and the old Wilford Hall will be demolished. Lackland is home to the 59th Medical Wing.

The base’s large commissary and large exchange — with a mall and shoppette — provide great shopping opportunities for airmen on base. And average commute times of about 12 minutes are some of the lowest nationwide.

Housing prices in parts of the San Antonio area are favorable at around $69,400, making it one of the most affordable places to live in the country.Monthly BAH for airmen there starts at $1,038 for airmen basic without dependents, to $2,091 for colonels with dependents. The monthly rent for two-bedroom apartments in San Antonio averages $828, according to RentJungle.com.

“When speaking to my NCOs, I’ve not heard anybody complaining that it’s so doggone expensive that they can’t find a place, or need to spend extra money beyond what they’re comfortable with,” Col. Bill Eger, former commander of the 502nd Installation Support Group, said in a July 10 interview. His final day at the 502nd before being transferred to the Defense Information Systems Agency was July 11.

Are you a fan of live music? One of the best music scenes in the country can be found in Austin, less than a two-hour drive from Lackland. A wide variety of artists — ranging from bluesmen Stevie Ray Vaughan and Gary Clark Jr. to indie rockers such as the band Spoon to country legends like Willie Nelson — have hung their hats there. And Austin’s annual South by Southwest festival and Austin City Limits Music Festival bring even more national acts to Lackland’s neck of the woods.

History buffs can visit the legendary Alamo and other Spanish missions. Sports fans can watch the San Antonio Spurs play— although scoring tickets may be tough now that they are the reigning National Basketball Association champions — as well as check out the minor league baseball team the San Antonio Missions. And multiple water parks can be found just a few miles away from Lackland, Eger said.

Airmen who want to enjoy the outdoors can bike or hike along the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System, which currently consists of 45 miles of trails winding along San Antonio’s creeks. Eger said San Antonio is opening up more sections of the San Antonio River to kayaking and canoeing.

“The city’s trying to become like Austin, and create a more healthy living lifestyle,” Eger said.

4. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska

One of the northernmost bases in the military is also in one of the most beautiful and unique parts of the country.

“Life in Alaska is a little different,” said Col. Brian Duffy, former commander of the 673rd Air Base Wing and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage. “You’re living amongst wildlife. You’ve got moose, bear, fox, lynx, coyote, eagles, ravens. It’s a lot different than the lower 48.”

Former Capt. Louise Fode, a meteorologist who was stationed at Elmendorf from 2000 to 2004, said many airmen see the base as a plum assignment.

“Elmendorf is definitely one of the most competitive places to get stationed,” said Fode, who still lives there. “A lot of military members are interested in the outdoor life that Anchorage and Alaska has to offer. [And] for a winter location, it’s really not that bad in terms of temperatures. We are much more moderate in temps than Fairbanks, or North Dakota, and we get a lot of snow to play in.”

Fairbanks, which is 26 miles northwest of Eielson Air Force Base, hits an average January low of 13 below zero, and Minot, North Dakota, hits 4.3 below in January. Elmendorf’s average January low of 5.7 degrees is also cold, but at least stays north of zero.

Elmendorf’s large commissary and exchange with a mall and shoppette provide plenty of affordable shopping opportunities for service members there, helping land it among the best bases in the Air Force.

And in a relatively remote place like Anchorage, those base shopping opportunities are crucial to offset Alaska’s higher cost of living.

“Having the commissary is a huge help because the food costs go down, and [service members] have greater access to food,” Duffy said. “Everything that comes into the state comes by water or air, driving the cost up. The road system isn’t like the [East Coast’s Interstate] 95 corridor. The Port of Anchorage is where most things come in.”

Alaska has no state income tax, and the Anchorage area has no sales tax, which helps airmen make ends meet.

Airmen who have lived in Alaska for a full calendar year and intend to put down roots can apply for the Permanent Fund Dividend. Eligible Alaskan residents each received $900 last year — their share of the revenues raised from oil drilling and other use of natural resources in the state.

But Duffy cautions that the Permanent Fund Dividend comes with strings. If an airman receiving the dividend is transferred away and does not return to Alaska after leaving the service, Alaska could recoup the payments made to him.

Fode said bars, clubs, restaurants, museums and other activities can be found in Anchorage, not far off base.

“It’s the cultural hub for Alaska — for what that’s worth,” Fode said.

Elmendorf also has an unusual on-base amenity: the Hillberg Ski Area. Duffy said it’s not a huge slope — perhaps a quarter-mile run with a drop of between 200 and 300 feet — but it’s a safe place for newly arrived airmen to strap on their first set of skis and learn.

“A lot of people who come from the lower 48 don’t know what snow looks like,” Duffy said.

The last two years, Duffy said, Elmendorf opened Hillberg to the entire base as the annual holiday party. And more advanced skiers can find faster slopes nearby.

Elmendorf rents fishing boats, which Duffy said is a popular activity.

“A lot of people are chewing their arms off to get out of the office and go fishing,” Duffy said.

5. Luke Air Force Base, Arizona

Rounding out the top five is Luke Air Force Base near Glendale, Arizona, which also enjoys low housing costs of about $71,900, as well as short 11-minute commute times and a solid commissary and exchange.

“From what I can tell, we’re in a buyer’s market,” said Chief Master Sgt. John Mazza, the 56th Fighter Wing Command Chief at Luke. “It’s not just one area — the whole community is pretty desirable. Peoria, Buckeye, Glendale, Goodyear — these are some of the best I’ve seen.”

Mazza said besides offering special deals to military service members, the local communities often ask what they can do for airmen, and how they can spend time with them and learn their stories.

“I’ve never seen such military support [from the community] in a long time,” Mazza said.

Airmen at Luke are within a few hours’ drive of the Grand Canyon, the Coconino National Forest near Sedona, Arizona, and Joshua Tree National Park in California.

And two hours from this desert environment, skiing enthusiasts can find slopes in the mountains of Flagstaff, Arizona.

“If you’re an outdoors person, you’re gonna love Luke Air Force Base,” Mazza said. “The landscapes change [as one drives throughout the state]. The cactus disappear, it turns into green, rolling hills. Most folks go up to [Flagstaff] to stay in a hotel and camp and beat the heat and play golf.”

Even a weekend getaway in Las Vegas is about four or five hours away, depending on the traffic.

Mazza said one of Luke’s biggest attractions is the proximity to every major professional sport. The Arizona Cardinals football team, Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team, Phoenix Suns men’s basketball team, Phoenix Mercury women’s basketball team and Arizona Coyotes hockey team are a quick drive from the gates of Luke.

Like Scott, Luke has a Single Airman Program that offers discounted activities. Senior Airman Jenna Sarvinski, who is on her first assignment at Luke, said she went skydiving through the program, which has also offered go-karting and trips to the Grand Canyon.

“It’s a chance for people who don’t have a significant other or a spouse to get to know other airmen,” Sarvinski said. “You get off base and relax and get away from work for a while, but you’re still meeting other airmen and enjoying yourselves.”

The full list:

Air Force Times’ ranking of the best bases in the Air Force:

1. (tied) Scott AFB, Illinois
1. (tied) Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio
3. Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas
4. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska
5. Luke AFB, Arizona
6. (tied) MacDill AFB, Florida
6. (tied) Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota
8. (tied) Eglin AFB, Florida
8. (tied) Offut AFB, Nebraska
10. Cannon AFB, New Mexico
11. (tied) Holloman AFB, New Mexico
11. (tied) Schriever AFB, Colorado
11. (tied) McGuire AFB, New Jersey
14. (tied) Patrick AFB, Florida
14. (tied) Nellis AFB, Nevada
14. (tied) Dover AFB, Delaware
17. (tied) Eielson AFB, Alaska
17. (tied) Tinker AFB, Oklahoma
17. (tied) Langley AFB, Virginia
17. (tied) Minot AFB, North Dakota
21. Beale AFB, California
22. (tied) Keesler AFB, Mississippi
22. (tied) Sheppard AFB, Texas
24. U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado
25. (tied) Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona
25. (tied) Robins AFB, Georgia
25. (tied) Mountain Home AFB, Idaho
28. (tied) Peterson AFB, Colorado
28. (tied) Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station
30. (tied) Edwards AFB, California
30. (tied) Randolph AFB, Texas
32. (tied) Vandenburg Vandenberg AFB, California
32. (tied) Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia
34. Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota
35. (tied) Kirtland AFB, New Mexico
35. (tied) Fairchild AFB, Washington
35. (tied) Hill AFB, Utah
35. (tied) Whiteman AFB, Missouri
39. (tied) Little Rock AFB, Arkansas
39. (tied) Hurlburt Field, Florida
39. (tied) Joint Base Lewis-McChord
42. (tied) Altus AFB, Oklahoma
42. (tied) Charleston AFB, South Carolina
42. (tied) Maxwell-Gunter AFB, Alabama
45. (tied) Barksdale AFB, Louisiana
45. (tied) Goodfellow AFB, Texas
47. (tied) Vance AFB, Oklahoma
47. (tied) Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii
49. (tied) FE Warren AFB, Wyoming
49. (tied) Joint Base Andrews, Maryland
49. (tied) Dyess AFB, Texas
52. Pope AFB, North Carolina
53. (tied) Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina
53. (tied) Malmstrom AFB, Montana
55. (tied) Tyndall AFB, Florida
55. (tied) Moody AFB, Georgia
55. (tied) Arnold AFB, Tennessee
55. (tied) Shaw AFB, South Carolina
59. (tied) March Air Reserve Base, California
59. (tied) Laughlin AFB, Texas
61. (tied) Buckley AFB, Colorado
61. (tied) Selfridge Air National Guard Base, Michigan
63. Travis AFB, California
64. (tied) Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, DC
64. (tied) Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts
66. (tied) McConnell AFB, Kansas
66. (tied) Columbus AFB, Mississippi
68. Los Angeles Air Force Base
Air Force Times research

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