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The heart of Pensacola: City has strong ties with naval base

PENSACOLA, FL – There’s a message board in Gary Yetter’s brewery, located near Naval Air Station Pensacola. The idea is, a customer buys a beer for a friend who isn’t there, puts their name on it and when the friend comes in, they have a free beer waiting for them.

Right now, there are several free beers waiting for unnamed NAS Pensacola flight school students, first responders and U.S. Marines. But it’s not just a reaction to the Royal Saudi Air Force officer who fatally shot three sailors and wounded eight others on Friday. Yetter says people have always shown their appreciation for the sailors and Marines on the base.

“Someone will come in and say ‘I want to buy a beer for a flight school student,’” Yetter said.

It’s an example of the mutual love between the city and those on the base. While a lot of military bases provide an economic engine for the communities that host them, the Navy has a special relationship with Pensacola that is built on centuries of history.

A large number of the city's 52,000 residents, including Yetter, are people who first came to Pensacola because of the naval base.

Yetter, 63, spent 21 years in the Navy and used to call Washington state his home. The Navy brought him to Pensacola twice, and after retiring he made it his home for good. He worked part-time at the base as a civilian, and eventually opened the brewery. He says 75% of his customers are active military, retired military or civilian employees from the base.

“It’s funny about Pensacola. Everybody says, ‘Are you from Pensacola?’ and most people say, ‘No, I’m from somewhere else.’ But we all move here eventually,” said Yetter.

Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan first came to Pensacola as a member of the Air Force, and returned to the city when he retired.

He noted during a press briefing on the shooting that the community is particularly hurt because it opens its heart and homes to foreign nationals who train at the base.

“We opened our country to the allied officers, we opened our hearts. Many of the folks that surround our military base ... do sponsorships, where they sponsor officers into their homes to do a cultural exchange,” Morgan said. “You should have walked the crime scene with us, and you’d understand the anger in this community right now.”

The military history of the area dates back to 1698, when Spain built a fort on the same site where NAS Pensacola is now — though not as sprawling as the nearly 6,000-acre base. French forces destroyed the Spanish fort in 1719. The Spanish later built Fort San Carlos de Barrancas in 1797 and some of the structure is still on the current base. President John Quincy Adams ordered the construction of a Navy yard on the site and construction began in 1826. The decision was made to conduct aviation training at the base in the years before the U.S. entered World War I.

The base employs more than 16,000 military personnel and 7,400 civilians and trains about 60,000 members of the military each year. It's also home to the National Naval Aviation Museum, which King Juan Carlos of Spain and his wife Sofia visited in 2009 during a trip to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Spain settling the area.

The city takes tremendous pride in NAS Pensacola, so much so that it named an elementary school after the Blue Angels precision flying team based there. A Blue Angels jet is mounted by a visitor welcome center on I-10, positioned to look like it's soaring sideways above the center.

“It’s an economic engine, but it goes far beyond that. So many of us are retired military that chose to retire here because there’s a sense of family, there’s a sense of belonging,” said Morgan, who is originally from Missouri and lived around the country as a military brat.

Killed in the shooting were Joshua Kaleb Watson, a 23-year-old graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy; Airman Mohammed Sameh Haitham, 19, of St. Petersburg, Florida, who joined the Navy after graduating from high school last year; and Airman Apprentice Cameron Scott Walters, 21, of Richmond Hill, Georgia.

After the attack, the community responded. The day of the shooting, a line at a local blood donor center went out the front door into the parking lot. The next day people continued to come in to donate blood as their way to try to help.

“It’s about the least I can do. There’s not really much else I can do in my position except give blood and try to provide comfort,” said Navy Ensign Kyle Hering, 25, who has been stationed at the base for about a year. “Pensacola is really welcoming to all the Navy folks, and it’s really hard when we have our brothers and sisters get shot and killed. It really hurts us. It stings. We’re just trying to do what we can to stick together as a family and take care of each other."