Military retirees can camp, golf, and fish at hundreds of military bases. It costs less than civilian resorts, making the bases popular vacation spots for thousands of former service members.
The waters of Tampa Bay lap at the marina boat ramp on the southern tip of the Tampa peninsula. Visitors can dock their boats at the slips, buy fresh and frozen bait, or spend a day on the water.
"Kayaks, canoes, paddle boards," said employee Reggie Norman, listing the rental options at the marina building. "Usually the weekend is really the busiest day because the weather is getting nice."
The picturesque spot might sound like an upscale Florida tourist resort. But the marina, beach, and waterside restaurant are at MacDill Air Force Base. There's also a tiki bar, two golf courses, and close to 400 RV slots with water, electricity, and cable TV.
That makes MacDill a prime vacation spot for military retirees, who pay far less for the amenities than they would at any commercial Florida resort. The lower cost, convenience, and community bring Navy veteran Tom Peters back for six months every winter.
"There's a potluck every Friday, there's poker night, bridge night. karaoke that goes on over at the restaurant," Peters said. He's a MacDill regular who volunteers as the family campground registrar for night hours.
MacDill's accommodations are larger and more exotic than most military bases. But just about every U.S. military base offers recreation and camping for military retirees. On Joint Base Lewis - McChord in Tacoma, Wash., they can park their RV under towering pines at the Holiday Family Camp. At Fort Riley, they can camp alongside the largest man-made lake in Kansas.
All told, there are more than 270 military campgrounds by Larry Farquhar's count. The retired Air Force master sergeant created the website MilitaryCampgrounds.us more than a decade ago because he couldn't find a comprehensive listing. At first, the site was just for him and his friends, but word spread quickly. The free site now has more than 54,000 member.
The Department of Defense also maintains an 84 page online publication called "Best Kept Secrets: Joint Services, Campgrounds and Facilities" for active duty service members.
Farquhar said military campgrounds have been around probably since WWII as a morale, welfare, and recreational benefit for active duty service members.
Military retirees have access to base campgrounds as one of the benefits for their 20-30 years of service. Because the campgrounds must be "self-sustaining," operated without taxpayer dollars, the retirees provide a revenue source.
Farquhar and his wife have lived the last 14 years in a 40 foot diesel RV that they often take to military campgrounds.
"It's the comradery, it's the pricing, it's the amenities - the feeling of being back in the military, it's the security," Farquhar said. "We kind of joke some places that a lot of our RV parks on military bases are some of the nicest gated private resorts that we can go to."
There's another reason military retirees are welcomed at MacDill Air Force Base. They volunteer thousands of hours on base.
"Whether it's at the pharmacy, the hospital, down with us, or at the golf course, all over base, and it's just great to see," said MacDill Outdoor Recreation Manager Will Vallee. "We have this profound veterans community interacting with the active duty community. I think it really strengthens both."
Active duty troops, National Guard members, and Reservists also can use the campgrounds and recreation areas at MacDill and other bases. Each base operates its campgrounds independently, so the rules, accommodations, and prices vary from base to base.
Vallee said he often has a waiting list of more than a hundred names for MacDill's almost 400 RV hookups. Reservations, especially at Florida and California bases, can be difficult to get. But active duty troops have top priority.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.