Every year, more than 250,000 military members transition out of the service. This change isn’t a singular experience—it often impacts other areas of life, including having to move to finding a job to reevaluating financial plans and everything in between. What makes those who made the transition this year unique is that they did so in the middle of a global pandemic.
The shift to civilian life is no easy feat, and servicemembers and their families deserve added support and resources to help them through this significant life change. To aid in this effort, we partnered with Operation Homefront® to compile a list of the Best Cities After Service 2020.
In revisiting the Best Cities list—first established in 2018—and keeping in mind an unprecedented global pandemic, we found that people’s needs, interests and general quality of life measures are shifting, especially those of servicemembers and their families.
“Making the transition to civilian life is a big leap, and where you want to live is often your first decision,” says Retired Marine Corps Colonel and Manager at Navy Federal Clay Stackhouse. “That’s why we created this list with input from real veterans who have made the transition themselves. For anyone leaving the military, this list is a great resource to add to your arsenal.”
The Best Cities After Service 2020 list showcases a diverse group of cities across the country so that every servicemember can find the right fit for their next hometown.
“We are thrilled to be able to help an amazing Navy Federal Credit Union team celebrate their top 10 list of communities they believe have earned special recognition for taking such great care of our military and veteran families,” said Brig. Gen. (ret.) John I. Pray, Jr., President and CEO of Operation Homefront®. “We are incredibly grateful for NFCU's continued support and all they do to help us help this very deserving group of our fellow citizens overcome their financial hardships and put them on a path towards a stronger, more stable and more secure future.”
To understand where servicemembers may want to live when they leave the military, we asked 1,000 individuals (veteran and non-military civilians) to weigh the importance of things like cost of living, price of housing, crime rates, community diversity and outdoor recreational opportunities. We arrived at an important calculation to illustrate how veterans weigh trade-offs as they select the best place to live. We then used those factors to rank over 400 cities in the United States and conclude which cities best meet the needs of transitioning servicemembers.
Best Cities After Service
- Charleston, SC
A city known for its hospitality, Charleston boasts low housing costs, access to cultural and natural activities, and a robust history. With James Beard Award-winning restaurants like Husk and FIG, shopping in the Historic Charleston City Market, or the ability to enjoy walking along The Battery, residents will discover new wonders in this city every day. The city also hosts a vibrant military community with Joint Base Charleston just a quick 25-minute drive from the center of downtown.
- Fort Myers, FL
Known for its white sand beaches and mile-long stretches of canals, Cape Coral-Ft. Myers has risen as a key destination for veterans looking to live in year-round sunshine. Residents are provided endless opportunities to enjoy all that Florida has to offer—from boating and fishing to water sports and nature preserves—and even history buffs will find paradise at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, one of the area's top attractions.
- Savannah, GA
The oldest city in Georgia, enriched in captivating history, stunning coastal landscapes and antique homes with cobblestone streets, gives residents the feeling of being on an endless vacation. This charming southern town possesses unique experiences like Tybee Island, which offers three miles of stunning sandy beaches, shops and restaurants for the whole family. You could also head downtown to experience Savannah’s bustling art scene, with work featured from students of The Savannah College of Art and Design, and live music from buskers and bands playing in the park.
- Daphne, AL
Located on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay with the ambiance of a small town and the activity of a big city, Daphne-Fairhope-Foley has fantastic weather year-round. The area is known as a “pedestrian’s paradise” due to its many parks lined with Spanish moss oak trees and a downtown filled with restaurants, incomparable boutiques and galleries. View paintings by local artists at Eastern Shore Art Center or grab a pint of locally brewed beer from Fairhope Brewing Company, and you’ll find yourself settling in quickly.
- Norwich, CT
Nestled in Eastern Connecticut along the shores of the Long Island Sound, the greater Norwich-New London area is filled with picturesque New England towns and beautiful public beaches. Sitting at the intersection of three rivers, Norwich, nicknamed “The Rose of New England,” is the largest city in the area and hosts a historic downtown. If you head 13 miles south, you’ll find New London— coined a "top ten" creative community of its size in America—whose bustling Main Street is dotted with art galleries and adorned by the New London Mural Walk. There’s also a significant military community in the area as New London and its neighbor Groton are home to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the Naval Submarine Base New London, respectively.
- San Diego, CA
Famous for its stunning beaches and idyllic Southern California weather, the San Diego-Carlsbad area is nothing short of dreamy. From grabbing a bite at a world-famous tiki bar to visiting the expansive San Diego Zoo to surfing the Pacific Ocean at famous beaches like Cardiff State Beach or La Jolla Cove, the area has something for everyone. San Diego is also home to the nation’s largest concentration of military personnel, with veterans making up 13% of all San Diegans. 13.5% of all businesses in the city are veteran-owned, and 22% of the jobs in the area are connected to the military.
- Norfolk, VA
On the coastline of Virginia, the Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News region boasts a rich culinary scene, endless entertainment options, such as the Veterans United Home Loans Amphitheater, and beautiful waterfront views. The Norfolk Botanical Garden and Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center are two of the area’s most popular attractions. Also home to the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk, the surrounding community is committed to supporting servicemembers and veterans alike.
- Duluth, MN
Once voted “Best Outside City to Live in America,” Duluth is perfect for those who thrive in a natural environment. Located right on scenic Lake Superior, Duluth has access to fishing and boating, breathtaking waterfront trails, and kayaking or canoeing. Duluth is also the “Craft Beer Capital of Minnesota,” having brewed beer since 1881. For Bob Dylan fans, you can also visit Bob Dylan Way, a 1.8-mile path through Duluth’s cultural assets celebrating the birthplace of the great American singer-songwriter. Full of culture, history and family-friendly activities, Duluth is the best-kept secret of the Midwest.
- Gulfport, MS
Situated along Mississippi’s 44 miles of pristine coastline, the Gulfport-Biloxi-Pascagoula area is often referred to as the “Riviera of the South.” Residents enjoy the region’s sunny beaches, low cost of living and laid-back Southern charm. Home to more than a quarter of the state’s veteran community, Gulfport-Biloxi-Pascagoula has become a hub for servicemembers and their families. In 2019, the state announced the construction of a $54-million state veterans home in the area, which will accompany a VA hospital in Biloxi and a federal VA retirement home along the Gulfport beachfront.
- Fort Worth, TX
Located just west of Dallas, the Fort Worth-Arlington area is in the cultural and commercial heart of North Texas. Fort Worth’s buzzing Sundance Square provides more than 35 square blocks of downtown dining, shopping and live entertainment. Sports lovers, meanwhile, can catch a race at Fort Worth’s Texas Motor Speedway, and Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers games in Arlington. With these attractions, it’s no wonder that more than 60,000 veterans live in the area, enjoying the area’s wealth of employment and educational opportunities.
This list presents a brand new set of locations most ideal for life after service. Following the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became evident that servicemembers now, more than ever before, are looking for a strong community of veterans, lower crime rates, a lower cost of living and easily accessible outdoor activities.
Other cities that ranked highly include Oklahoma City, OK (#11); Augusta, GA (#12); Atlanta, GA (#13); Columbia, SC (#14); Omaha, NE (#15); Asheville, NC (#16); Baltimore, MD (#17); Crestview, FL (#18); Columbus, OH (#19); and Cleveland, OH (#20).
Regardless of where you move after service, planning for the transition to civilian life also means having a financial plan to match. There are differences in mortgage, equity and insurance when you leave the military, and your expenses and income may change, too. Navy Federal Credit Union is proud to offer tools, tips and resources to help servicemembers succeed as they transition to civilian life.
Navy Federal has presented its “Best Of” lists every year since 2018. In 2018, we developed the first iteration of the Best Cities After Service list. Last year, Navy Federal developed Best Careers After Service, a comprehensive list of the best careers that will make the transition from Active Duty to civilian life more successful.
If you’re interested in even more resources, check out our Transition to Civilian Life Kit or visit our Military Life page. You’ll find articles and tips on topics ranging from the Transition Assistance Program (TAP) to budgeting and managing debt and even finding homes for rent or sale by other servicemembers.
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