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America's veterans being drawn to the Last Frontier

Hunting, fishing, jobs, seclusion. For many ex-service members, Alaska has it all.

December 10, 2006|Jeannette J. Lee | Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE — As a boy in upstate New York, Bill McCue spent hours dreaming about adventures in the distant Alaska wilderness, poring over articles about moose and grizzlies in his favorite hunting and fishing magazine, Field and Stream.

"When I was stationed here, it was like a dream come true," said McCue, who served at the Navy base on the south-central Alaska island of Kodiak in the early 1960s. "It's like no other place I'd ever been."

The U.S. Census Bureau says Alaska has more veterans per capita than any other state. Veterans make up nearly 17% of Alaska's adult population, compared with 11% of the nation as a whole, according to the American Community Survey issued by the Census Bureau in 2005.

McCue is one of nearly 70,000 veterans who have chosen life in the 49th state, according to estimates by the Alaska Office of Veterans Affairs.

The state's two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, have an Army and Air Force base apiece and, according to a 2003 state survey, a majority of Alaska veterans choose to settle nearby. Veterans nationwide tend to do the same.

"There are real advantages to staying near a military post once you've retired. You can use the PX, you can go on post for medical care and you've got a social network," said Catherine Lutz, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I.

But with strong military communities from Hampton, Va., to San Diego, why do veterans choose Alaska?

Like many nonmilitary residents, they are drawn to the untrammeled wilderness, the world-class hunting and fishing, or simply secure jobs with good pay. But veterans also choose Alaska for reasons unique to those who have experienced war firsthand, or spent years adhering to a strictly disciplined and hierarchical work environment.

McCue said that for years he suffered from night sweats after serving on an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War.

"You come to get away from everything, especially if you've seen stuff you don't want to remember," said McCue, who has since lived out many of his boyhood imaginings of Alaska.

He's been a commercial fisherman and helped guide bear hunts on Kodiak. He once filled the bed of a pickup with pink salmon after fishing for 11 hours with a rod and reel. Now, at age 63, he drives a taxi in Anchorage.

The libertarian frontier lifestyle, still a large part of the culture in this sparsely settled state of 650,000, attracts many veterans too.

"There's a lot of open space," said state Veterans Affairs Administrator Jerry Beale. "You can be an individual. You can move out into the bush as far as you want and not have to see anybody for a year if don't want to."

Dave Landacre, a chaplain at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in the interior city of Fairbanks, said the veterans he knew "don't like to be told what to do."

"Fairbanks veterans are the people that had 20 to 30 years in military service. They're very loyal, but now that they're done, they want to do things on their own," Landacre said.

The independence can be balanced, as veterans see fit, by the small-town personal relationships that characterize rural Alaska.

"There's a lot of people in small communities who take care of folks who have problems," said John Kelley, who served in the Air Force and Army before moving to Alaska 20 years ago. "That's why a lot of veterans are out there. You can be independent, but still have people to look after you."

Beale estimates that most veterans in Alaska were originally from the Lower 48 and got their first glimpse of the state while on duty.

Kelley stopped in Alaska in 1968 on his way to Vietnam. Then an engineer in the Air Force, he remembers the plane had to circle to scare a moose off the runway before landing.

"I said, 'All righty, I'm coming back,' " recalled Kelley, who is a service officer in Anchorage with the VFW. "I made it back in 1986 and haven't lived anywhere else since."

Many of Alaska's veterans work for state or federal agencies, with a high percentage in law enforcement, Beale said.

Richard Brown, 42, who once worked at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, is in charge of building maintenance for the Anchorage Police Department. Brown, who has three children, said it would take an "awesome" job to get him to leave the state where he moved at age 11.

"Every winter, who doesn't think of living anyplace else?" he said during steak night at VFW Post 1685 in Anchorage. "But I always stick it out. We got wonderful summers and I honestly can't think of a better place to raise kids."

But the hardiness required to live independently in Alaska wanes with age, and it's common for older veterans to ultimately leave for retirement communities in Arizona, Florida or California.

"You have to be a little more vigorous to live here," Beale said. "The cold, snow and ice gets to a lot of people."

But Landacre said he and his fellow veterans had made an educated choice, having sampled cities worldwide while in the service. Landacre, for example, was stationed in a host of balmy places including Hawaii, California, Cuba and Guam.

He insists he won't leave Fairbanks, his hometown, where temperatures can sink to minus 60 and summer temperatures rise to more than 90 degrees.

"The Fairbanks crew is not going anywhere. They're up here and they're staying," Landacre said. "I guarantee not one of us is planning to move to Florida."

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