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State's vet population growing, evolving

By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2002

SPRING HILL -- If you're looking for a 75-cent draft and an embellished war story, the good men and women of Hernando County's VFW Post 10209 have you covered.

SPRING HILL -- If you're looking for a 75-cent draft and an embellished war story, the good men and women of Hernando County's VFW Post 10209 have you covered.

It is, after all, the state's second-largest Veterans of Foreign War post in a county where nearly one out of four adults is a military veteran, according to recently released U.S. Census figures.

Cheap beer and tall tales aside, the somber truth of being a member of Post 10209, most of whom are from the World War II era, is that each year fewer of your comrades come back to fill a bar stool.

The situation is emblematic of the state's veteran population, which is growing and evolving into a group of Vietnam-era vets in their 50s who are still working and putting kids through college. The guys who sit in the smoky bar at the Spring Hill VFW joke about their assorted illnesses, but know all too well that they are the rear-guard of an era.

"Everybody thinks all we do is come down here and drink," said Commander Ed Noll, 77. "Actually, half of them can't drink. They're on pills."

Citrus and Hernando counties rank second and third statewide in the percentage of veterans in their adult populations. Okaloosa County, in the Florida Panhandle, has the highest percentage of veterans in the state, comprising 27.4-percent of its adult population.

The old traditions of Spring Hill Post 10209 were underscored by their Memorial Day services held on Thursday -- the traditional anniversary on which the holiday was founded, not the Monday designated every year so people can have a three-day weekend.

As they stick to custom, though, Noll said has been seeing more membership applications from Vietnam vets. He believes the post is in the middle of a transition to a younger generation. Even though the veterans population nearly doubled in Spring Hill during the last decade, the membership of his VFW post has fallen by 25 percent.

"There is a changing demographic, no doubt about it," said Jerry Newberry, a Vietnam vet and communications director for the national VFW organization. "Women make up a significant portion of the military now. We realize the future is in the younger veterans."

The number of veterans in Florida grew 9.1 percent during the last decade, according to census figures, while their numbers dropped in other states. That's still a slower rate of growth than Florida's population as a whole, which grew 23.5 percent in the 1990s.

But in five of seven Tampa Bay area counties -- Citrus, Hernando, Manatee, Pasco and Sarasota -- the veterans population grew at a faster rate than the state average. In Hillsborough and Pinellas, the core of the metropolitan area, the number of veterans remained stagnant or even dropped.

The data, released last week, is from the long form questionnaire given to roughly one in six households nationwide. The numbers are estimates based on statistical sampling. More detailed veterans information will be released in the summer.

In the Tampa Bay area, different trends are at work in different counties.

In Citrus, where the veterans population increased a staggering 24 percent, those who work with vets say it's still the traditional older, WWII vet who is living in this retirement-oriented county.

"The bulk of ours are still WWII and Korea," said J.J. Kenney, Citrus County veterans service officer. "It's a really nice place to live but we don't have any, shall we say, industry up here."

In Pasco, the change in the veterans population is roughly tracking what is happening to the county at large, said Fred Harrop, Pasco County director of veterans services. There is still a substantial number of WWII vets, but more frequently he is seeing people who served in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"We have started to see some of the younger people who have just gotten out of the service and are settling here," Harrop said. "They're getting jobs in Tampa and the Clearwater area with the high-tech companies."

The veterans population declined 2.3 percent in Pinellas County during the last decade, also roughly conforming to what is happening in a county where the number of households receiving Social Security dropped.

When asked why the veterans population fell, Richard McAllister, captain of the honor guard for American Legion Post 252 in Seminole said: "Because they're dying, that's why."

McAllister, who is in line to become post commander in July, said he typically rounds up an honor guard two or three times a week to go to Bay Pines National Cemetery and give a proper send-off to a fellow veteran.

"We do a lot of funerals," McAllister said.

Pinellas County's relatively modest growth -- 8.2 percent in a state that grew 23.5 percent -- and the decline of the 65 and older population may speak to why the number of veterans dropped.

Hillsborough's relatively stable number of veterans during the last decade is countered by Department of Veterans Affairs figures showing increasing calls for service, said Tom Fletcher, Hillsborough's veterans affairs manager.

An explanation, Fletcher said, is that Hillsborough's veterans are aging and not being replaced, for whatever reason, by younger veterans.

It may be that the younger veterans are moving out of Hillsborough and into places such as southern Pasco, Fletcher said.

Tony Dobies, assistant to the director at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines, said government projections show Florida's veteran population will begin to level off in 2005 and gradually decline as the WWII veterans reach the ends of their lives.

And while the war on terrorism continues abroad, it's difficult to project with any certainty what will happen further into the future. But one thing is certain, he said, tomorrow's veterans will not be the same people who walked in parades wearing overseas caps while tossing candy to children.

"Times have changed," Dobies said. "Things are different. Veterans aren't the same people they were."

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