ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Nearly 70,000 veterans have chosen to make their home in Alaska, which according to the Census Bureau has the country's highest concentration of former military personnel.
The high number reflects, in part, the simple fact that veterans tend to cluster near military bases. Alaska's two biggest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, have one Army and one Air Force base apiece.
"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 anthropology at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
As a boy in upstate New York, Bill McCue spent many hours poring over articles in Field and Stream magazine about moose and grizzlies and dreaming about adventures in the Alaska wilderness.
Later, as a military man, he was stationed in Alaska, and "it was like a dream come true," said McCue, a Vietnam veteran who served at the Navy base on Kodiak Island in the early 1960s. "It's like no other place I'd ever been to." But why cold and snowy Alaska and not, say, a warm military town in the Sunbelt? Many veterans, like many non-military residents, are drawn by the untrammeled wilderness, the world-class hunting and fishing, and secure jobs with good pay.
Moreover, the libertarian frontier spirit and the extreme solitude in this sparsely settled state of 650,000 have a certain appeal to veterans who led highly regimented professional lives or saw too much of the horrors of war.
"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."
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," he said.
McCue has since realized many of his boyhood imaginings. He has been a commercial fisherman, helped guide bear hunts on Kodiak and once filled the bed of a pickup truck with pink salmon after fishing for 11 hours with a rod and reel. Now, at 63, he drives a taxi in Anchorage.
Dave Landacre, who is a chaplain at the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Fairbanks, said the veterans he knows "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.
Veterans make up nearly 17 percent of the state's 18-and-over population, versus 11 percent nationally, the Census Bureau reported in 2005.
Beale said most veterans in Alaska are originally from the Lower 48 and get their first glimpse of the state while on duty.
John Kelley, who served in the Air Force and Army, stopped in Alaska in 1968 on his way to Vietnam. He remembers the plane had to circle to scare a moose off the runway before landing.
"I said, 'Alrighty, I'm coming back,'" he said. "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 as police officers, state troopers or prison guards.
But it takes a hardy sort to live independently in Alaska, and as many veterans grow old, they leave for retirement communities in Arizona, Florida or California. "The cold, snow and ice gets to a lot of people," Beale said.
But Landacre said he and his fellow veterans made an educated choice, having sampled cities around the world while in the service. Landacre, for example, was stationed in balmy places such as Hawaii, California, Cuba and Guam before settling on Fairbanks, where temperatures can sink to 60 below.
"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."