When Arnie Habig, a native New Yorker, tells you how he ended up in Arkansas, he makes it sound as if it were an accident – but you can tell from his voice that he thinks he was destined to be there.
In 1957, Habig, along with about 1,200 fellow soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division Battle Group of the Army’s Airborne Division, was ordered by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to ensure the safe escort of nine African-American students – “the Little Rock Nine” – to classes at Little Rock Central High School to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Historic as that deployment was, it had also decided Habig’s own fate within a few days, when he met his future wife at a local club.
After retiring as a full colonel in 1987, Habig settled with his wife in Arkansas and discovered his new passion: Lake Ouachita, a 40,000-acre reservoir created by the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in 1953 when Blakely Mountain Dam was completed on the Ouachita River. The lake is in the heart of the Ouachita Mountains, just a dozen miles northwest of Hot Springs, and Habig and his wife spent every spare minute at the lake, usually camping at their favorite spot, Brady Mountain Resort, and sometimes fishing in the lake that is known as the “Striped Bass Capital of the World.” After working for awhile as a fee-taker at the lake, Habig later found a job with the State of Arkansas.
Today, Habig volunteers as chairman of the Lake Ouachita Citizens Focus Committee, a group of local leaders who provide feedback to the USACE about how to enhance the recreational experience at Lake Ouachita and the watershed around it. In the past decade, the committee has relaunched a lakeshore and island cleanup program. It has convinced Congress to fund the eradication of invasive aquatic plants from Lake Ouachita’s waters – still so clean they are home to rare freshwater jellyfish and sponges. It has formed the partnership that continues to develop the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (affectionately known as the LOVit), an award-winning network that links six resorts, six USACE recreation areas, and two U.S. Forest Service campsites.
“My advice to individuals who are going to get out of the Army is: One, take advantage of the GI Bill. That’s the first thing,” says Habig. “Second, start another career. There are so many jobs for military out there, especially state jobs. The other thing is: Volunteer to do something you really like. And we really like camping at Brady Mountain, so I volunteer at the lake. That’s what I do.”
While Habig and his wife, Jean, live about an hour away from the lake in his wife’s hometown of Little Rock, he says he’s just one of many military people – both active-duty and retired – who use the lake. Little Rock Air Force Base is about 55 miles from the lake, and many Air Force personnel retire to Hot Springs Village, less than a half-hour from Lake Ouachita.
“Most of them come and fish,” Habig says, “because Lake Ouachita is great for fishing. And there are a lot of other lakes around here. If you’re a fisherman or a hunter, and you’re based in Arkansas, you just end up staying here, because it’s a very enjoyable state.”
Corps Lakes Are Everywhere
The southeastern quadrant of the United States is noteworthy for several reasons, but for many military retirees, some appear to be more noteworthy than others – the abundance of military facilities, sunshine, and lakes.
Because the Army Corps of Engineers operates 4,500 recreation sites at its multi-use projects around the country – 80 percent of them within 50 miles of a major metropolitan area – many of these retirees are settling on or near a USACE lake. While some reservoirs, such as Ouachita, are surrounded by national forest land, others offer the opportunity to buy lakefront or lake-view property. All, however, offer a variety of recreational opportunities: boating, fishing, RV or tent camping, hiking, biking, hunting, horseback riding, and more.
There doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus among military personnel who retire on or near Corps lakes about why they chose the area. In central Texas, near the cities of Temple and Killeen, Dave Thomasson is the USACE’s lake manager for neighboring Belton and Stillhouse Hollow lakes. There’s a heavy military presence on both lakes, he says, “And of course, that’s because of the close proximity to Fort Hood. Part of Belton Lake actually is adjacent to the Fort Hood Military Reservation.” While many military retirees live nearby, Thomasson says, “I wouldn’t say they’ve moved here to retire. I think what’s more likely is that a large percentage of those folks were in the military, got out of the military, and then just stayed as younger men. Another thing that tends to draw military retirees to the area is the VA [Department of Veterans Affairs] hospital in Temple, which is about 10 to 20 miles from the lakes. And of course, anywhere you have a VA hospital, you’re going to have a big concentration of retirees.”
Arthur Johnson, a retired Army sergeant first class, spent the last nine years of his 20-year service at Fort Hood before retiring in 2005. He met his wife in the area, and together they bought a home in Morgan’s Point Resort on Belton Lake. Johnson enjoys everything about living on the lake. He owns an RV and camps at one of the lake’s many hookup sites, and has spent countless hours fishing. “It’s a pretty good area here in central Texas to retire to,” he says. “A lot to offer and not too far from anything.”
Johnson also knew, upon retiring, that he didn’t want to merely settle into a life of leisure. He took his lifelong desire to be a teacher and coach at nearby Miller Springs Nature Center, where he worked in a program to help troubled youth develop an appreciation for nature and conservation. It was here that he met a USACE park ranger and learned about the job. Today, he works for the Corps as a park ranger and natural resource specialist at Belton Lake where he’s in charge of the Corps’ public outreach program. At least two of the volunteers who work with him on the program are also retired military service members.
“So I live and work here now,” Johnson says. “I’m on the lake quite a bit as a ranger. I didn’t really know I wanted to do this until after I’d retired. It’s a great job.”
An Everyday Vacation
It often happens that lakeside living is a studied choice for military retirees. When Clint Epley, a former Navy commander, retired from the service, he and his wife had already discussed their retirement spot for years. “She said she wanted to be on a lake,” says Epley. “Not the ocean. A lake.” The Epleys took everything into consideration: taxes, housing, location, and proximity to military bases. “We wanted to be close to a base, but not in a big city,” he says.
When they had both retired, the Epleys went on a 28,800-mile, fact-finding odyssey, driving through all the lower 48 states. “The bottom line was that my wife said, ‘We’re going somewhere where it’s warm all the time.’ And it seemed the place we kept coming back to was the Texas Hill Country,” says Epley.
Today, the Epleys live in a home overlooking Canyon Lake, a USACE reservoir on the Guadalupe River, just 50 miles north of San Antonio and two of its largest military installations – Fort Sam Houston/Joint Base San Antonio and Randolph Air Force Base, headquarters of the Air Education Training Command and the 12th Flying Training Wing.
According to Epley, they considered another nearby lake, “but we decided we weren’t interested, because it had piers and things jutting out all over the shoreline, and the Corps of Engineers, on this particular lake, doesn’t allow any permanent structures. There are only two public marinas and two marinas set aside for military people. Everything else is free shoreline. We liked that a lot.”
Interestingly, the Epleys were unaware, when they moved in, that other military retirees – most from the Army and Air Force – surrounded them. “They moved here because they’d been stationed at Randolph or Lackland [Air Force Base] or one of the bases here, and knew about it,” Epley says, “and just came up here and liked it. And they came back.” Both Fort Sam Houston and Randolph Air Force Base, in fact, lease a portion of Canyon Lake in order to provide recreational facilities – boat rentals, marinas, beaches, even mobile homes – for service members.
Epley worked for a time as an office manager at the Fort Sam Houston Recreation Area – but none of its recreational opportunities seemed to interest Epley, who doesn’t own a boat. Today, he performs volunteer work, while his wife works for the Canyon Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. “For us, the lake is a view,” he says. “As my wife puts it, she feels like we’re on a vacation every time we come home.”
At least one pair of Army retirees – Jeanne Slupik, who retired from the Signal Corps in 1997, and her husband, a former artilleryman – moved to Canyon Lake from elsewhere. They met, says Jeanne, while serving in Germany, but had always kept their eyes on Canyon Lake. “My parents lived in San Antonio,” she says, “and we had other friends who had built their homes out at Canyon Lake. We wanted to be near the water, because we planned on jet skiing a lot.”
After buying a 5-acre lot, the Slupiks became enthusiastic lake dwellers; their home had a third garage space built specifically for their pontoon boat. “We have a panoramic view of Canyon Lake,” she says, “right over the dam. The yacht club is just on the other side of one of the hills, so we can see all the sailboats.” She spends many mornings walking across Canyon Dam with her sister – “A nice mile-long walk,” she says – but they don’t do much jet-skiing anymore, and the area is great for fishing, or so she hears. “We have trout in the Guadalupe River, and we have catfish and bass in the lake, but we don’t fish. I married the ultimate non-sportsman.”
For the Slupiks, an added bonus to living on Canyon Lake is the proximity to Brooke Army Medical Center, in San Antonio, which they both use as military retirees. But while they enjoy being close to family, the medical center, and a local population that is unfailingly appreciative of their service, neither of the Slupiks spends much time with other military retirees. “We do have a VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] post here,” she says, “but the majority of our friends are not military, and our prior lives are not the focus here. We had a life in the military, and the military was very good to us. But it’s not part of who we are today.”
Today, the Slupiks continue to enjoy introducing their many friends to Canyon Lake. “I still enjoy it,” she says. “I host a function every August that I call ‘Breakfast on the Deck.’ I bring all my friends out on the deck – because you want to be on my deck in the morning, not in the afternoon. And we just look at the view. When people come to visit, I can’t get them off the deck.”