Capt. Paul Hollandsworth first came to eastern Virginia as a naval aviator in 1956, when he was just out of flight training. He’s still there, in a condominium that overlooks the Chesapeake Bay, where he never tires of watching the passing ships. He recently had dinner with 12 of his closest friends, all retired naval officers who live nearby – one of whom he’s known since he first set foot on Naval Air Station Oceana more than a half-century ago.
“It’s just a great bunch of people that I absolutely respect,” Hollandsworth says. “They’re my brothers and sisters. We’ve known each other since God wore short pants.”
With its 38 miles of beachfront (according to Guinness World Records™, the world’s longest pleasure beach), numerous parks, restaurants, and historical sites, the resort city of Virginia Beach – the state’s largest city, in both population and surface area – is a draw for retirees from all walks. It hosts 3 million tourists a year. All of that is fine with Hollandsworth; he likes beaches and parks. But they’re not why he’s here.
Service members choose to retire to Virginia for many reasons – often, however, not the reasons others would suspect. Virginia’s climate isn’t the worst in the country, but it’s far from the best: Summers are hot and swampy near the coast, where most Virginians live, though winters are relatively mild. The state’s tax burden is just slightly above the national average, and the few military exemptions that exist apply to Medal of Honor recipients or those receiving disability pay.
Why, then, does Virginia have one of the highest numbers of military retirees – more than 140,000 throughout the state? The answers are a mix of history, demographics, and geography.
The Beltway and the Beaches
You can find military retirees in every part of Virginia, but there are two major concentrations. One is in northern Virginia, inside or near the Washington Beltway. The state’s economic engine, the region is home to many large corporations, as well as numerous historic, cultural, and recreational sites. While there is much to draw retirees who are no longer working, including military facilities at the Pentagon, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the National Naval Medical Center, Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility Washington, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Fort Belvoir, and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, there is also a bustle of international and commercial activity that creates an abundance of work – much of which is perfectly suited to people from military backgrounds.
When Capt. W.G. “Bud” Schneeweis retired from the Coast Guard after 28 years of service, he settled inside the Beltway, in Alexandria, Va., to join the Benefits Information and Financial Education Department at the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), an independent nonprofit that represents the interests of military officers during and after their service. Schneeweis has directed the department since 2003. “I love living in Virginia,” he says. “It has many things going for it. Its taxes aren’t low, but they’re not high – they are somewhere in the middle of the road. The state has had a fairly robust job and housing market for probably several decades now. It has little ups and downs, but nothing like we’ve seen in some of the other parts of the country.” (MOAA annually compiles state-by-state tax information relevant to military retirees).
Of course, as Schneeweis points out, for all the opportunities in government or nonprofit work, there are even more among the “Beltway Bandits” – the private companies in or near the capital whose major business is to provide goods or services, primarily consulting, to the government. “A lot of military folks have found employment in security-related fields,” says Schneeweis, “and not necessarily defense, but in all of those agencies that make up the Homeland Security Department. That’s opened up a lot of opportunity in the northern Virginia area, as well as around the country.”
Another area where military retirees can be found in abundance is in the Tidewater region known as Hampton Roads, in the southeastern corner of the state, encompassing the Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Newport News metropolitan area. This region is known not only for its beaches but for its military presence, with the Army (Forts Eustis and Monroe), Navy (Naval Station Norfolk, Naval Air Station Oceana, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek – Fort Story, and more), Air Force (Langley Air Force Base, now merged into Joint Base Langley-Eustis), and Coast Guard (Integrated Support Command Portsmouth) – all with significant installations in the region.
Hollandsworth, who lives on Virginia Beach’s northern Chesapeake Bay shore, just a few miles from Oceana, says it isn’t just the number of fellow military retirees that makes the area so attractive to him: “All areas where military bases are,” he points out, “are not this desirable.” Virginia Beach, according to Hollandsworth, has some of the best public schools in the nation, as well as one of the best police academies. The military culture that suffuses the Hampton Roads region makes for more stable, attractive communities. “You have to remember,” Hollandsworth says, “the active-duty folks in the area, they’re the guys in your church. They’re the guys that coach the softball teams, the soccer teams, the basketball teams. The military feeds the communities here.”
With so many military facilities nearby, Hollandsworth takes advantage of the opportunities available to him as one who put in 32 years of service: He often shops at base exchanges and commissaries, where he can buy goods and groceries at a discount, with no sales tax. While the region boasts one of the nation’s best hospitals, Portsmouth Naval Hospital, and one of the best cardiac care units at Sentara Heart Hospital in Norfolk, Hollandsworth, a TRICARE For Life member, gets most of his care at Virginia General Hospital. “But if you go to one of the pharmacies here on any of the bases,” he says, “you can pick up any medications you need. That of course is a huge benefit, because if you lived out in Podunk, you’d have to get your pills some other way.”
Reasons for Relocation Differ
Schneeweis, who works with retired service members every day at MOAA, says it’s not surprising that people end up not far from where they served – often, it’s simply a matter of finances. “Often the major consideration for them is how to support themselves and their families,” he says. “And their thinking is that they need to relocate someplace to find a job. For a lot of folks, that is exactly where they were last stationed, because they’ve made some contacts. They know the people. They know there’s an infrastructure or there’s industry that supports the service they were in. But that’s hardly always the case.”
It wasn’t quite the case with Col. Samuel D. Wilder Jr., who was hunting for a second career after completing his Army service at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va. He found his job – executive director at a law firm – in Richmond, about 80 miles to the northwest. Wilder isn’t a lawyer – which he says made him an attractive candidate. “I did everything the lawyers didn’t want to do,” he says. “With the variety of assignments you get in the military, you’re perhaps a jack-of-all-trades, master of none – but in certain jobs, that’s very helpful. I did everything from personnel to finance to computers to building out new locations, all kinds of things.”
Wilder initially chose the nearby community of Chester for its proximity to Fort Lee, outside Petersburg, where he thought he would avail himself of the commissary, Post Exchange, and medical facilities. As it turns out, he doesn’t – the hospital at Fort Lee has since closed, and with TRICARE For Life, Wilder sees a local civilian doctor. “The commissary is OK,” he says, “but the stores near my house are just as good or better. The savings [are] not that great … when it comes down to it, it’s not worth the gasoline to drive the 20 minutes to get there. But I’ve liked this area ever since I’ve moved here and it’s turned out to be a very good move, a good thing.”
For some Virginia retirees, the decision about where to retire has nothing to do with the military community, or even with job prospects – they just happen to like living in Virginia. The state has a varied topography, with distinct regions: the Shenandoah Valley, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the cosmopolitan Beltway, rural central Virginia, and the iconic Tidewater region and its “necks” of land on the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Coast. These regions contain some of the most desirable small towns in the country, many with a wealth of historic and cultural significance: Colonial Williamsburg (No. 5 in Money magazine’s list of Best Places to Live); the Civil War stronghold of Fredericksburg on the Northern Neck; Winchester, in the Shenandoah Valley; Petersburg; and of course, Charlottesville, home to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and the University of Virginia.
Charlottesville, in the Blue Ridge Mountains foothills, is consistently rated as one of the best places to live in the United States, and it draws retirees from every part of the country, as well as from every kind of working background – though it tends to draw educated, well-traveled people. The town has more movie screens and bookstores per capita than any other in the United States. It’s rife with galleries, theaters, museums, and libraries, with lake and mountain recreation only minutes away.
When Col. Carl R. Huebner retired from the Air Force in 1991, leaving his last duty assignment at the Pentagon, he and his wife – a northern Virginia native – checked out retirement spots from South Carolina to California before settling on Charlottesville. “It’s a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C.,” Huebner says, “midway between the mountains and the ocean. It’s a college town. As it turns out, it combines the best features of a small town and yet it has an urban population. So it had just about everything we wanted, plus the proximity to Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia for those times we wanted to avail ourselves of all the things that a major metropolitan area had to offer.”
As much as he loves Charlottesville, and even though he lived in mostly civilian communities throughout his 26-year military career, Huebner confesses to suffering from a slight case of military homesickness now and then. “I still feel some pangs of not being involved with military folks on a regular basis,” he says. “I like to stay in touch. I think the morals and values of military people are the best, and we feel most at home with our former military officer friends.”
For military retirees who have, for whatever reason, reached a point where it’s necessary to consider some level of assistance in daily living, Virginia also is among the most popular choices – the state’s rich military heritage has resulted in numerous retirement communities, catering the full spectrum of independent and assisted-living needs. Many are continuing-care facilities, meeting this full gamut within a single community, and many are devoted entirely to former military and federal law enforcement personnel and their spouses. Top Retirements has a partial listing of these communities, but MOAA collects a nationwide compendium of such communities, every year, in the special March and August retirement issues of Military Officer magazine. The Department of Veterans Affairs, of course, is another valuable information resource.
MOAA also offers a compilation called “Seven Steps to a Better Military Retirement” to the public. “It really doesn’t go into location so much,” says MOAA’s Schneeweis, “but it talks about the kinds of things you should be thinking about before you leave the military and either retire or seek a second employment.”
No place is perfect, of course. Schneeweis thinks he’ll probably move somewhere a little less crowded and a little less expensive – possibly another part of Virginia – after he retires from his second career. For now, he enjoys his work and the fellowship of his friends – a fellowship that will probably help him with his next move. “That bond is everything,” he says. “Even if you don’t know a person well, you can say: ‘Hey, we were fellow Marines at the same time,’ or as I happened to be in the Coast Guard, I can call up any of my Coast Guard buddies around the country and say: ‘Hey, what’s it like living in a place where I might have an eye on settling down?’”