When El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser heard about his city being named one of five Great American Defense Communities for 2023 in March, he was glad. To share in the good news, he called Maj. Gen. Jim Isenhower III, the 1st Armored Division and Fort Bliss commanding general, whose headquarters building and main post are within the city limits and is the largest employer in the region.
"I tell him, 'Hey, general, it's great, we were selected one of the five cities, and he said 'mayor, it was a no-brainer,'" Leeser said. "'What are you talking about? It was great.' 'It was a no-brainer,' he says."
Months later, Isenhower and the mayor joined city hall leaders and Association of Defense Communities representatives, as well as valued partners in the Sun City and Army leaders from Bliss, for an afternoon reception to celebrate the recognition, fittingly on the 248th birthday of the Army, at the El Paso Museum of Art, in El Paso, Texas, June 14, 2023.
El Paso and the four other communities beat out approximately 50 others who contend for the honor yearly. According to ADC, a non-profit organization that partners with banking and insurance company USAA, a Great American Defense Community has "an exceptional commitment to improving the lives of service members, veterans, and their families."
Every year, the ADC has a different focus on its GADC competition. This year, GADC will focus on innovation, workforce development, education, entrepreneurship, and supporting young service members.
El Paso is the first Texas community to receive the recognition since 2020 and the first in the Southwest since 2019.
The Association of Defense Communities, or ADC, is a network of more than 400 public and private organizations and individuals serving as a respected consultancy for military, veterans, and military family issues and focuses and how they can be applied to action in military communities nationwide.
Paul Albright, the city's Division of Military and Veterans Affairs chief military officer, said that when he took the new position four years ago, he wanted to put words into action for the more than 50 percent of the Bliss troops and families who live within the city of El Paso, as well as the city's own more than 50,000 veterans.
Thanks to a team effort, in 2020, the city launched a "landmark" push for an updated profile of the military and veteran community in El Paso and El Paso County with the El Paso Veterans Needs Assessment. This laid the groundwork for transformation.
"We don't say we support our veterans. We say we're going to turn support into action," said the retired Army command sergeant major, who retired in 2019 after serving as the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, headquartered at Bliss. "What exactly does that mean if we say we want to take care of homeless veterans? How do we do that? How do we actually get them off the street? And we say we want to connect our veterans and our transitioning service members to employment."
Albright said the city partnered with ADC in 2020 in what has since been a "wonderful" collaboration.
"They represent every service out there, every military base across the nation," he said, comparing it to Army learning practices which stress cooperation and information sharing across many domains to build toward a common goal. "It's a 'lessons learned' for communities about how we can collaborate together and how we can learn from each other and support our bases the right way."
As part of the ADC delegation's visit to El Paso, they visited a public-private, first-of-its-kind veterans support facility managed by the Emergence Health Network in El Paso that offers accelerated access to mental health services, known as a Veterans One-Stop Center.
They had lunch at Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss, the DoD's only open-air shopping center, and saved room for birthday cake with Isenhower and the 1st AD as they celebrated the Army birthday at Costello Hall on east Bliss.
Before heading downtown to mark the occasion, the representatives also toured Bliss' innovative Transition Assistance Program campus, which offers a growing list of post-military programs and information for eligible troops and military family members.
Also recognized by the ADC this year were the following: Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska; Fort George G. Meade Region, Md.; Montgomery-River Region, Ala.; and Greater Omaha, Neb.
In his remarks, Isenhower credited the city and Fort Bliss' "one community" approach that made the city's recognition as a GADC an easy pick -- or, as the general put it to Leeser a few months ago, a "no-brainer."
"Interdependent for more than 150 years, we make each other better through our common efforts in employment, health care, education, housing, community resilience, and, most importantly, honest relationships when it comes to embracing service members and veterans," Isenhower said. "I appreciate [the ADC's] recognition of El Paso and its remarkable citizens who work every day to improve the lives of service men and women, veterans and their families. El Paso has made and continues to make a genuine difference in our lives.
"Perhaps the best indicator of how effective this city and county have been is this," he said. "Every month, Fort Bliss hosts a retirement ceremony for officers and noncommissioned officers retiring after more than 20 years of service. This month, we honored 15 retirees and their families. After more than 20 years of moving between seven, eight, even nine installations, 13 of 15 families chose to call El Paso home. Thirteen of 15 will stay right here. It's better at Bliss because of El Paso—clear evidence of why El Paso is a Great American Defense Community."