Brooke Army Medical Center is now San Antonio Military Medical Center.
Brooke Army Medical Center is the nation's largest military medical facility. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg didn’t take an army with him to Washington last week for a mission at the COVID-quiet Pentagon. He was accompanied only by Maj. Gen. Juan Ayala, director of the city’s Office of Military and Veteran Affairs, and Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.

They met with what the mayor called the “top decision makers” relating to a number of prizes the city is seeking. One is to attract the military’s 2022 Warrior Games, athletic competitions for wounded members of the military that San Antonio was set to host this year before the coronavirus pandemic caused its cancellation. Another is to add some medical programs to the city’s thriving military medical facilities.

But the big one is to make San Antonio the permanent headquarters for the recently activated U.S. Space Command. This command, now based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, would bring an estimated 1,300 to 1,400 personnel to oversee such things as the protection of the nation’s military satellites from either physical or cyberattacks. 

Added to San Antonio’s role as the nation’s largest military medical center for treatment and training and as the location of both the National Security Agency’s second largest and the Air Force’s largest cybersecurity operations, the Space Command would continue to position San Antonio on the futuristic cutting edge of military operations.

Which, of course, has me thinking of the city’s massive and at times rocky military past. San Antonio trademarked its title as “Military City U.S.A.” three years ago, but its military history goes back three centuries.

Spain saw its control of its northern frontier threatened by the French, who had established cities first in Mobile, Alabama, and then New Orleans, with apparent designs on moving westward. A key part of Spain’s response was to dispatch missionaries to San Antonio to recruit and train natives as a workforce. But they knew protection would be needed so they paired the mission (which became the Alamo) with a presidio, a fortified military installation. They then recruited Canary Islanders to set up a village that would grow into a city. 

So San Antonio was military from its birth. The town was, briefly, without substantial military presence after Texas won independence in 1836, and the result was dire. It suffered raids and even occupation by Mexican forces as late as 1842. Here’s how historian David Johnson put it in his new book, In the Loop: A Political and Economic History of San Antonio: “San Antonio faced a bleak future in the wake of the 1842 invasions. With the town’s population plummeting below a thousand residents, its economy in ruins, and its ethnic relations tense, the community was on the cusp of disintegration. Miraculously, though, San Antonio became a miniature boomtown by 1847.”

The miracle: It was annexed by the United States as expansionist President James K. Polk aggressively planned a war with Mexico. San Antonio quickly became a communications and supply center for the war, leading not only to its defense but also to considerable income and to Army-improved roads to the Gulf Coast and to Mexico. What’s more, even before the war ended, San Antonio was designated as a headquarters and supply center for a string of forts to the west to protect the advance of American settlers to the regions the United States would take from Mexico. 

Military spending on this mission – $39 million in today’s dollars during a six-year period in the 1850s – would provide a strong basis for the town’s economy and help it to double its size to 8,000 in the 1860 census, giving it a slim lead over Galveston as Texas’s largest city. 

One of the themes of Johnson’s book, however, is that while the military provided a strong basis, a solid floor, for San Antonio’s economy, it also generated something of a ceiling. It made much of the city’s business leaders fat, happy, and uninterested in making the improvements to the city necessary to compete for growth and economic development.

For example, when pioneer businessman Sam Maverick and some other town boosters joined together in 1850 to build a railroad, one of a number of reasons for their failure was opposition from one of San Antonio’s most prosperous economic sectors: the ox cart industry that was raking in profits from the Army. Ironically, it was later the Army that finally forced San Antonio to join Dallas and Houston in getting the railroad.

In 1872, tired of paying upwards of $2 million a year for ox cart transport, Gen. Philip Sheridan recommended that the Army move its depot to Fort Worth to be near the railroad. San Antonio rallied over the objection of much of the competition-fearing business community, and the Army held off its move until the railroad connection was completed in 1877. 

Later the military would grow even more with World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. San Antonio’s economy was heavily boosted by the military, including the huge aircraft maintenance and repair operation at Kelly Air Force Base that almost singlehandedly lifted much of the city’s Mexican American population into the middle class.

But then came the 1995 and 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commissions, which stunned San Antonio by closing Kelly and Brooks Air Force Base. City leaders worried that San Antonio would suffer a horrendous blow. But BRACC would end up being a boon to the city. While San Antonio lost thousands of blue collar and civil service jobs, it won thousands of medical jobs as the medical training and much of medical treatment for all military branches were concentrated in San Antonio.

Meanwhile, the National Security Agency quietly built up its second largest installation on San Antonio’s West Side, concentrating on cybersecurity and warfare. And the Air Force located two major cybersecurity wings here, recently combined into the larger 16th Air Force at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.

The result is that the military presence in San Antonio is dominated by medicine, technology, and science – by knowledge cultures. Not only do the direct and indirect employees of the military here earn more than $12 billion, much of which goes into the local economy, but the medical and cybersecurity operations have spun off an uncounted number of private-sector companies. It has made the city more entrepreneurial.

It also has led to local universities and even high schools offering programs in cybersecurity. The University of Texas at San Antonio has drawn millions of dollars in grants for that purpose and has become a national leader in the high-wage field. 

The new Space Command is likely a long shot, with at least 40 cities competing for it, but it would fit easily into today’s San Antonio military landscape. 

This article has been updated to correct that Spain established an early presence in San Antonio, that the war with Mexico occurred under President James K. Polk, and that the former Brooks Air Force Base was recommended for closure in 2005.

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.