For many people, Hawaii and sunny Southern California are dream vacation destinations. For you, could they be home?
"You can't find ... a more beautiful geography and comfortable year-round weather than Hawaii," said Robert Kroning, director of the Honolulu's Department of Design and Construction. "I mean, they call it paradise for a reason."
After years of living where the government orders, as service members, you have a unique opportunity to rethink your digs — and your entire way of life — when you transition out of the military.
With strong economies, healthy populations and significant military and veteran presences, Honolulu and San Diego have a lot more to offer transitioning veterans than just golden beaches. As a result, they landed a couple of the top spots in the 2016 edition of our Best for Vets: Places to Live rankings.
"San Diego, I think, is one of the finest towns for the military probably in the country," said Scott Chadwick, the city's chief operating officer.
The city boasts an enormous military presence, plenty of outdoor recreation and, not to be forgotten, beer.
"San Diego is also the craft beer capital of the United States, and we have literally hundreds of breweries."
For our second annual Best for Vets: Places to Live rankings, Military Times evaluated cities across some three dozen metrics — beer not among them — using data from more than a dozen different sources.
- Economic factors, such as unemployment rates and housing costs.
- The presence of military and veteran culture and services, such as the size of the veteran population and nearby Veterans Affairs Department medical facilities.
- Livability measures, such as area health outcomes, schools and traffic.
A total of 581 places, as designated by the U.S. Census Bureau, were considered, but only 125 made the cut:
- The top 25 among 76 large cities with populations of 200,000 or more.
- The top 50 among 240 medium-sized cities with populations of 75,000 to 199,999.
- The top 50 among 265 small cities with populations of fewer than 75,000.
In addition to San Diego and Honolulu, other top finishers among large cities included Virginia Beach, Va., Colorado Springs, Colo., and San Antonio. The top medium-sized cities were Alexandria, Va., Arlington, Va., and Centennial, Colo. Among small cities, League City, Texas, San Clemente, Calif., and Bethesda, Md., took the top spots.
Among large cities on the list, Denver, pictured, along with neighboring Aurora, Colo., had the most types of Best for Vets-ranked institutions including colleges, employers, franchises and law enforcement agencies within 25 miles.
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There are some downsides to living in a place where people vacation.
For one: Hawaii is a long, long plane flight.
"You can feel somewhat isolated from your family," Honolulu's Kroning said. "Your draw to want to go back and spend Christmas with mama — it may not be as easy as you think."
Also, top-tier vacation destinations can be pricy, with significantly higher rents, home prices and overall living costs than the norm. You'll have to bring in a bigger paycheck in these cities to enjoy a lifestyle you could find cheaper elsewhere.
But there are bargains to be found.
Crime, schools and health
Virginia Beach has one of the nation's highest populations of veterans and active-duty troops, low veteran unemployment, high veteran median income and a healthy community. And your checking account will still be flush after each month's mortgage payment.
"It's a good value," said Dave Hanson, Virginia Beach's city manager. "It's a safe community with great recreational opportunities."
Hanson called Virginia Beach one of the country's safest large cities, and the numbers back him up. The most recent FBI stats show Virginia Beach with about one-third of the crime levels of Seattle, for instance.
And smaller towns, such as Centennial, Colo., can have even less crime.
"It's a great family place, with a lot of wonderful neighborhoods, great schools — one of the safest communities of our size in the entire nation," said Centennial Mayor Cathy Noon.
Among this year's Best for Vets: Places to Live cities, Centennial and Kirkland, Wash., had school districts with some of the highest rankings from GreatSchools, an education nonprofit that rates K-12 school districts across the country.
The Lake Washington School District, which serves Kirkland, takes a unique approach, with "choice schools."
"They are essentially centers of excellence, where they focus on particular areas and particular interests, and they emphasize that extraordinarily, in addition to the regular curriculum," said Dave Asher, a member of the Kirkland City Council.
San Diego tops Military Times' 2016 rankings of best large cities for veterans.
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The schools focus on subjects ranging from art to science and technology, and they're open to students from kindergarten to 12th grade.
Kirkland sits across the lake from Seattle and is within driving distance of aerospace and tech companies with major operations in the area, including Boeing, Microsoft and Amazon.
But the city of roughly 70,000 still has a small-town feel, Asher said.
"You come to know your neighbors, I think, a lot more readily."
As Kirkland is to Seattle, so are Alexandria and Arlington to Washington, D.C.
"If they're interested in coming to the D.C. area ... we're as close as you can get, with a lot of the advantages and very few of the disadvantages," said Mark Schwartz, Arlington county manager.
Schwartz touted the area's schools, economy and health.
"We have excellent medical care and a kind of culture of fitness here," he said.
Out of 134 Virginia counties, County Health Rankings and Roadmaps ranks Arlington No. 3 in health outcomes and No. 2 in health factors.
The Pentagon is located in Arlington, and dozens of military bases and VA facilities are nearby. In addition, military experience can be very valuable in an area full of defense, government contracting and high-tech companies.
"We have a lot of places where former military come and get jobs, and they tend to be high-paying," Schwartz said.
Next door in Alexandria, a nonprofit called Capitol Post offers events and workshops specifically for veterans, to help them find jobs, start businesses and get involved in the community.
"We try to provide an opportunity for veterans to get connected," said Emily McMahan, the program's executive director, who detailed a focus on helping veterans become an integrated and active part of the larger community. "It's something that really boosts people's happiness ... being involved in service."
Noon, Centennial's mayor, echoed that view.
"You really do want that place that ... you want to put down roots," she said. Noon added that there isn't any one factor that can determine whether a city is right for an individual veteran.
"It's good schools. It's good neighborhoods. It's safety. It's a great job," Noon said. "I really do hope they're looking for a place that welcomes them."
Virginia Beach, Va., had very low crime and the highest veteran median income among the top 25 cities with 200,000 or more people.
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