Junction City Many Fort Riley soldiers are choosing to stay in Kansas after they retire from the Army.
“These people are amazing,” said Sgt. Maj. Steve Waller, set to retire to nearby Clay Center within a year. “Most places, they see the military as an income, but here you’re immediately friends and neighbors.
“Kansas is the only place where I walk into Walmart and people want to shake my hand and say thanks. No place have we felt more welcome.”
Fort Riley officials said about 300 of their soldiers retire annually. The Army estimates 3,400 of its retirees, many with families, are now living in the area, according to the Wichita Eagle.
Although Fort Riley officials say they don’t track the percentage of soldiers who stay after retirement, Todd Moore of the Junction City Chamber of Commerce estimates more than half of those currently retiring from Fort Riley are staying in the area.
Command Master Sgt. Jim Champagne, who has been to a string of retirement ceremonies, estimates it’s closer to 70 percent.
Champagne’s wife, Lisa, retired two years ago, and he’s not far behind. They’re staying, too.
Sgt. Maj. Mark Dombrowski said before he came to Fort Riley in 2006, he heard terms like “hole,” and “middle of nowhere” used to describe Fort Riley, the base next to Junction City.
But he has since found otherwise.
“We’re staying. This place is perfect,” said Dombrowski. “From here on, Junction City will always be our home.”
Most military retirees are in their mid-40s and many have young families.
Dombrowski and his wife, Pamela, remember the first night they watched the news at Fort Riley. Weather was the lead story.
“Mark and I just looked at each other and smiled,” she said. “We’re from about an hour from Philadelphia, and the news is always about shootings and gang drive-bys.
“The weather is their main worry? We knew it would be a safe place for our kids.”
They quickly learned it would be a great place for them to get an education, too. A math teacher, Pamela Dombrowski soon found that Kansas offered better schools than most near military bases.
Jim Champagne is planning on beginning doctorate work at Kansas State University and said teenage children of many retirees enroll at the college and drive from home.
“(Our son) can go wherever he wants, but there’s something to be said about having your kids in the area and attend a world-class university that’s just minutes away,” he said.
Employment opportunities also are strong. Moore said the Chamber of Commerce helps organize many job fairs on Fort Riley. Many retirees find civilian jobs on base.
Retirees also say they can get the most from their modest Army pensions and paychecks in Kansas.
Nikki Davies, of Junction City’s Military Affairs Department, said speculators overbuilt the area when the 1st Infantry Division — known as the Big Red One — returned to Fort Riley from Germany in 2006. That created a buyer’s market.
Recently the Dombrowskis inspected a house they’re having built overlooking Milford Lake.
It’s on 7 acres and close enough to town that their kids can be at the school where their mother also teaches in about six minutes. Fort Riley is only a few minutes farther away.
“A lot of stuff had to come together for this to happen for us,” Mark Dombrowski said. “We couldn’t think about being able to afford this in most places.”