The first question that someone currently in the military and about to separate from it has to ask themselves is: Where will I live when I get out? And—why?
It’s not always obvious that veterans have followed that first question with the second one. Somewhere around a third of service members who’ve just exited the Armed Forces appear to stay in the same location as their last duty station; many others return to their original hometowns; the rest scatter to the four corners without any discernible patterns.
Veterans’ advocates and researchers who have long understood how vital the first year after service is for the continued well-being of the veteran believe that it is a missed opportunity, with often long-lasting repercussions, for the military not to enable a structured conversation with its members well before separation about how to think about where they’ll make their home as civilians. Veterans would be better served if, before their transition from the military, they knew to weigh the job market, cost of living, tax rates, educational opportunities, support services, and favorableness to veterans of different cities, counties, and states, along with veterans’ own interests and skillsets.
Likewise, potential employers and even states often don’t have constructive ways to connect their employment opportunities and job markets to the soon-to-be veterans. There’s confidential information involved, as well as some national security concerns, that inhibit the military’s ability to make available such information about its personnel. Nevertheless, there are some things that can be known in general terms, like how many service members are expected to leave the military from a specific military base or installation, or the number of personnel who are projected to leave the military from a given state.
In 2021, there were 1.3 million people in the military, a 38% decrease from its most recent peak in 1987. Thirty-two percent of troops abroad were in Japan; 20% were in Germany. Around 200,000 of those individuals will have left the military by now, either through retirement, planned separation, forced separation, or due to medical discharge. According to the Department of Defense, approximately 1,300 new veterans and their families return to civilian life every single day. Currently, there are an estimated 2.19 million military retirees, many of whom have embarked on second careers post-service.
America’s military veterans increasingly are living in the South and West regions of the United States. Texas, Florida, and California are the three states with the greatest numbers of veterans calling them home, followed by Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, New York, Georgia, and Illinois to round out the top ten states. Over the next few years, the Northeast and Midwest are expected to lose a great deal of their veteran population. Using data projections from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA), the Flourish racing bar charts below show these changing demographics of the veteran population over a 30-year period.
According to the VA’s data, Suffolk County, New York, is projected to lose around 53,000 veterans; Cook County, Illinois, nearly 136, 000 veterans; and Los Angeles County, California, about 213,000 by 2045.
Why does it matter to know where veterans and their families are living? For one, this information is vital for the federal government, states, and municipalities to know where to allocate the various resources, financial, physical, and otherwise, needed to support veterans and their families. Second, as the third and fourth Flourish graphics allude to, if indeed no states in the Northeast or Midwest rank in the top 15 congressional districts by veteran population by 2045, then veteran-centered policymaking at the federal level foreseeably might become a highly regional focus. This would further isolate veterans’ policy from the general awareness of members of Congress not sitting on either the Senate or House Committee on Veterans Affairs, and would further reduce interest in veterans’ policy research.