The map (shown as a screen shot above; you can see the full interactive version below the fold) shows veterans as a percentage of the overall civilian population in each county. It's a little deceptive at first glance, though; your eye is naturally drawn to the large swaths of blue in the Mountain West and Northwest, but that doesn't show the largest populations. Many of these counties are nearly empty, though they have above average percentages of veterans. What's more noteworthy is which very populous counties have the largest percentages, and we'll pull those out in a table over the fold. The common thread in these counties is that they contain military installations; in other words, veterans often don't move far at all once they leave the armed forces.
The county with the highest percentage overall is Fall River County, South Dakota, where 32.4 percent of the civilian population are veterans. (That's according to the Census Bureau's 2005-10 American Community Survey.) It's a county in the Black Hills with only 7,000 people who are disproportionately senior citizens. That's followed by Esmeralda County, Nevada (27.8 percent), Haines Borough, Alaska (26.6 percent), Liberty County, Georgia (26.5 percent), and Pulaski County, Missouri (26 percent).
Many of the most veteran-heavy counties are, like Fall River, rural places with lots of retirees. However, when you pull out only the most populous counties (those with populations over 100,000, for our purposes), you see a much different pattern: they all have military installations.
|8||Okaloosa, FL||24.0||Eglin AFB|
|13||Montgomery, TN||22.6||Ft. Campbell|
|14||Onslow, NC||22.5||Camp LeJeune|
|18||Cumberland, NC||21.4||Ft. Bragg|
|21||Bell, TX||21.3||Ft. Hood|
|24||Cochise, AZ||20.9||Ft. Huachuca|
|27||Comanche, OK||20.7||Ft. Sill|
|31||Hampton, VA||20.4||Langley AFB|
|33||Hardin, KY||20.3||Ft. Knox|
|34||Virginia Beach, VA||20.1||Oceana NAS|
Counties #4 and #5 from above, Liberty and Pulaski, also have military installations (Ft. Stewart and Ft. Leonard Wood, respectively); they aren't in the table because their overall populations are below 100,000.
So why do veterans tend to stay put when they get out of the service (or move to another area where veterans are clustered)? Part of it is cultural: it's where their friends from the service are, or it's also where their professional connections are, making it easier to get a private sector job. But part of it's also economic: some benefits that veterans enjoy follow them anywhere (like VA home loans), but others don't. Not all veterans qualify to be able to shop at a deeply-discounted PX or to use Tricare, but for those that do, there's a strong incentive to live within easy driving distance of an exchange or a VA medical facility. And the fact that it's such an important factor in so many people's decision about where to live means that it's very important for government to actually get veterans' health care right.
You'll also notice, looking at the map, that there are large concentrations of veterans in traditional inexpensive retirement areas, like Texas's Hill Country, or the cheaper parts of Florida like Marion and Pasco Counties (but not so much in Florida's swankier retirement areas, like Sarasota or Palm Beach).
Looking at the map, you'll also notice where the veterans aren't, especially California, and primarily African-American parts of the deep South. Also, you'll notice the numbers seem low in Appalachia, especially eastern Kentucky. Lots of people tend to think of the military as a way out of rural poverty, but maybe not as many people avail themselves of that option as you'd think. (Or perhaps they do ... but then don't come back, instead continuing to live in proximity to the military community after getting out.)
The two counties with the lowest percentages of veterans are, not coincidentally, the two with the lowest overall population (both under 100 residents): Loving County, Texas, and Kalawao County, Hawaii, both with 0 percent veterans. However, in the bottom 10, they're followed by some of the nation's largest counties, often ones with a particularly large Latino population. It's hard to tell without zooming in on the map, but the nation's major cities tend to be disproportionately low on veterans (with the obvious exception of the Navy-dominated Norfolk/Virginia Beach metropolis). The bottom 10 are rounded out by Aleutians East, Alaska; Starr, Texas; Kings, New York (i.e. Brooklyn); Miami-Dade, Florida; Hudson, New Jersey (Jersey City); Webb, Texas (Laredo); Queens, New York; and New York, New York (Manhattan).