YUMA, Ariz. — A native of Minnesota, Greg Wilkinson has been to the East Coast and West Coast, Texas and overseas, but when it came time to retire from the Marine Corps, he chose to make Yuma his home.
“Truthfully, I like it better here than anywhere else I've been,” he said.
That's heard frequently from veterans, who retire in Yuma where their lives have become interwoven with the fabric of the community. Or they return to make Yuma their permanent “duty station” after getting out of the service because of the opportunities it presents as a military town.
Even some who weren't ever stationed in Yuma choose to settle in Yuma after completing their military career. Veteran Butch Eppenbaugh and his wife were drawn here by the benefits of Yuma's two military installations with their commissaries and health care clinics, the camaraderie of other veterans and the community's warm acceptance of its military family.
And some who grew up in the area choose to stay close to home when they get out of the service.
Darin Meeks grew up in Tacna, and to him Yuma was always the “big city” where his family came a couple of times a month. To a boy from Tacna, Yuma was “a happening place” back in the 1970s and ‘80s.
He spent 22 years in the service, first active duty in the Army, then with the National Guard.
Meeks spent some time stationed in Kentucky, in the unit made famous by the Band of Brothers.
“From growing up in the desert ... Kentucky was different,” he said. “It had trees and grass and snow and rain. I knew I didn't want to be there.”
He also spent some time in Germany and was in Desert Storm.
Then he got recruiter duty and was told he would be in Yuma. “I was like ‘no problem',” he said.
That is, until he was being transferred to Maine. “I opted to get out,” he said. “I didn't want to go. I grew up in Tacna. Yuma had become the closest thing to home. Of all the places I saw in the service ... I wouldn't want to live there.”
Not that he would turn down Hawaii, he said. “I would live anytime in Hawaii, but they don't have my kind of job there.”
Today, he works at Yuma Proving Ground with a job he enjoys. His children, granddaughter and parents are here as well as his sisters and their families.
“I like the desert and the people in Yuma,” he said. “Yuma is just the right size. It's bigger than Tacna but it doesn't take four hours to drive across town like Phoenix. This really is home. I call it Fort Yuma.”
Wilkinson feels the same way about Yuma, where he now applies the management and leadership skills he learned in the military to his position as city administrator.
His first tour of duty was at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. He would return for two more tours, the last as the commanding officer of a combined squadron in charge of air traffic controllers for the entire desert Southwest. In all, he spent 12 years of his 21-year military career in Yuma and raised his family here.
Offered a transfer, Wilkinson opted instead to retire — as a lieutenant colonel — and stay here even though with his background he could have had a job anywhere with defense contractors.
Helping make his decision, he said, is that his wife really wanted to stay in Yuma. Furthermore, at the time, couple's oldest son was attending Arizona State University, the middle son was at the University of Arizona and the youngest was a student at Kofa High school.
Wilkinson said he worried that his wife, who was raised in Huntington Beach, wouldn't like Yuma when he was transferred here for his second tour. “But she loved it.”
They even hung on to the house they had bought in 1986 while they were gone for five years.
“Yuma is the secret of the Corps,” Wilkinson said. “It's a good place to raise a family. It has great parks and recreation programs and good schools.”
He continued: “We have good friends here, it's a good place to live, my wife loves it here and it has nice weather.”
Today, most of his family also is nearby. His oldest son is a teacher in Yuma and his parents and sister are now winter residents in Mesa.
Perhaps best of all, though, his granddaughter, Avery Grace, is here.