California‘s veteran population is the country’s largest, and it’s as varied as the nations in which these men and women served.
California is home to many veterans in need of a variety of resources. From housing assistance to mental health services, the Golden State provides avenues to hope and healing. Image courtesy of Fort Rucker Creative Commons Media
In a Northern California suburb on a sunny day, you will find Matthew working in his garden or tinkering in the garage on his latest hobby project. If you ask him to tell you about his life, he’ll undoubtedly mention his three grandchildren, his beloved wife of more than 50 years, or the latest trip he has planned. His blue eyes hold both wisdom from the past and a glint of future adventure.
What Matthew may not tell you straight away is that he is also a Vietnam veteran. He won’t mention his struggle with PTSD, his battle to quit smoking, or how he still finds himself affected by a rainy day. But Matthew (not his real name) is in good company with more than 1.8 million veterans living in California. While many have managed to seamlessly integrate with their communities, many others wage their own private wars to live a normal life after experiencing the horrors of combat.
California’s veteran population is as varied as the nations they’ve traveled to during their time of service—a tapestry of different educational levels, professions, and life experiences. In fact, not only do more veterans live in California than any other state, they also exemplify the most diversity. Nationally, California’s veterans follow some trends seen in other parts of the country: More than 90 percent are male; more than half are over the age of 60; and the largest percentage of living California veterans served in the Gulf War.
Beyond those facts, California veterans differ when it comes to ethnicity and income. While only 7 percent of veterans nationally identify as Hispanic or Latino, 17 percent of California veterans do. The state is also home to approximately one-third of the United States’ Asian-American veteran population. Approximately 7.5 percent of California veterans surveyed were found to be living below the poverty line.
According to the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, the largest share of veterans live in Southern California, with more than a half-million living in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Head on up to Northern California, and you will find about 90,000 veterans, including our friend Matthew, who lives in Sacramento County. Other large populations are found in Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties.
While many veterans have reached retirement age, a good 7 percent are business owners in California. This percentage represents approximately 253,377 operating stores, services, and other business entities. Many go on to continue serving the community through their professional endeavors.
Unfortunately, for every success story, there is a struggle. In 2021, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated nationwide the number of homeless veterans to be about 62,619. About 25 percent of those were located in California, making the Golden State home to the largest percentage of homeless veterans in the nation. According to the veteran resource website CalVet, California’s homeless population has been cut in half in recent years, but there is still a lot of work to be done to get more of these important members of society back on track.
Veterans who suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries find it difficult for them to find employment. A recent VA study showed that approximately 20 percent of Veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF) have PTSD. Further, 12 percent of Gulf War Veterans and up to 30 percent of Vietnam Veterans have been diagnosed with the condition. Keeping in mind that this is just the portion of Veterans that have been surveyed, the struggle with PTSD is significant on paper but likely even more than statistics show.
Given these statistics, there is much to be done for those who gave so much to serve their country. Fortunately, there are many resource groups ready to help.
CalVet is one such organization working to make a difference. The mission statement of this organization is “to serve and honor all California veterans by connecting them and their families with their earned benefits through education, advocacy, and direct services.” The group does exactly that by providing resources for employment preparedness, health care and housing, connecting veterans to local Stand Down events, and equipping them to overcome the challenges of post-war life. There are also special programs for female and minority veterans, as well as services ranging from counseling to veteran home loan.
For those veterans not able to live independently, CalVet is also responsible for the Veterans Homes of California—affordable long-term care for veterans and their spouses. There are currently eight facilities across California, ranging from skilled nursing facilities to stepped-down care for those who need just a small boost to live independently.
Nationally, the U.S. Veterans Administration also provides vital assistance to California veterans, including everything from education and training to burials and memorials. The VA provides healthcare to a large percentage of veterans, as well as housing and pension assistance.
As Matthew spends his retirement watching his grandchildren grow and continuing his passion for model trains and WWII-era planes, he carries with him the memories of violent conflict and surviving halfway across the world at a time when he was barely old enough for a high school diploma. Among the multitude of veterans throughout California, he is one of the lucky ones—a good family, adequate healthcare and a beautiful home.
But all veterans, both those on the upswing and those much more downtrodden, deserve our love, respect and support. Consider volunteering at a veteran-focused event or donating to American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. These men and women dedicated a portion of their life protecting us, and now it’s our turn to return the favor in the simple ways we all can.