‘Sand in their shoes’

A look at the military's impact in Northwest Florida

Savannah Vasquez

NOTE: This series delves into the military presence in the tri-county area, examining its impact and what factors play into the age of the area's population. The series resumes Monday.

If you’ve lived in Okaloosa, Walton or Santa Rosa counties for any amount of time, you may have noticed that in addition to the appealing Gulf of Mexico, there is another steady denominator: the presence of the U.S. military.

It’s apparent when driving across Okaloosa Island, as much of the island has remained in its natural form due to the military’s ownership. It’s noticeable at popular shopping centers and businesses that offer discounts to both active and former military. Flags honoring the five branches fly at Destin Commons and other businesses, and veteran-owned businesses pepper the area.

“Every indication that we have, people either travel through here on temporary duty, or they’re stationed in this area, or they come on vacation to visit friends and they love the area because it’s so pretty,” said Brooke McLean, a retired airman and president of the Air Force Enlisted Village in Shalimar. “It’s also a very military-friendly town.” 

Military impact

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Okaloosa County has a median age of 36, and over the past 14 years the median age has trended younger. In addition, Okaloosa has the highest percentage of its population in both the 20-44 age range and the 45-64 age range. Those age ranges reflect the typical age ranges of active-duty military members and newly retired veterans. 

A robust population of active and retired military ages in Okaloosa County stretches back to World War II, according to Tom Rice, a retired Army 1st sergeant and board member of Veterans Florida.

“It’s kind of like waves,” Rice said. “After a big conflict, guys come back here and open up a business, then get called back to the service and then retire. There’s been a tradition of that certainly from World War II and Korea.”

Rice, who owns the Magnolia Grill in Fort Walton Beach, called the trend of military members sticking around after they retire or finish their service as getting "sand in their shoes."

“(Wife) Peg’s dad was motel operator, came back in ‘53 and built the Starkey Motel,” Rice said of his father-in-law. “He was a World War II veteran. ... He came back and that was his entrepreneurial thing; he wanted to be in business and he built that motel. Some of the things in here (the historic attic of the Magnolia Grill) are treasures from veterans who came here, got sand in their shoes before World War II, came back, retired here.”

Population projection

According to the Census Bureau, the United States has a rapidly aging population, with Florida ranking first in the nation in the percentage of people 65 and older. Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties all have a median age of either the late 30s or early 40s.

Given the area’s strong military presence, local veterans do not seem worried about an aging trend happening here.

“I don’t see it as an issue, personally,” said Jim Bagby, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and vice chairman of Veterans Florida.

Bagby, who has worked in the Walton County tourist development and real estate field for 16 years, said the trend, at least for Walton, seems to be a healthy balance of old and young.

“Young families are moving here,” he said. “More retirees are coming here ... or they are retiring here or they are coming back. People want to stay here. They want to raise their families here, whether they're a veteran or not a veteran, but I think veterans see this because there are a lot of opportunities for veterans here.”

McLean, the Air Force Enlisted Village president, said military retirees are known for an "encore career."

“When you finish up your first career and you’re still young and you’re in your 40s, you’re not ready to sit back or go sit on a rock someplace. You want to go do something else,” McLean said. “You still have so much more to give as well.”

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