Daniel Kalagian hated the cold.
The 20-year Army veteran’s injuries from a rough ride in a helicopter in Iraq left him with a bad back, hip and shoulder along with hearing loss in his right ear. The pain from the ailments would worsen as the temperature fell when he lived in Connecticut. Moving to the Sunshine State as his retirement neared was an easy decision.
The Ocoee resident is among more than 1.58 million veterans who call Florida home. Hoping to get more veterans to follow Kalagian’s lead, the state has launched a new marketing effort aimed at attracting ex-military members nationwide.
The effort is geared toward younger veterans as they prepare to leave the military and comes as Florida’s retired military population continues to grow older, which has sparked the need for more Veterans Affairs clinics, including the recent opening of an outpatient clinic in Tavares.
Kalagian had heard that treatment was better in the South, but that wasn’t the only consideration.
“Plus, who wouldn’t want to trade in snow for warm weather and beaches,” said Kalagian, 56, who moved to the state in 2011.
The agency Veterans Florida started its first marketing campaign in January targeting large military bases. It was created in 2014 by state lawmakers to help promote Florida as veteran friendly.
Using $4.3 million in state funding this year, the agency uses digital and print advertisements to attract veterans at bases across the nation, including in Texas, New York, Kentucky and Washington, by connecting them with employment, training and educational opportunities around the state, along with touting the state’s tax breaks, homestead-exemption perks and tuition discounts for military members and their families.
“We want to show them Florida’s great economy, the high quality of life here and our great schools,” said Bobby Carbonell, Veterans Florida executive director. “There are a lot of benefits for veterans in our state, but many people don’t know about them.”
He said the goal for this year is building brand awareness and changing veterans’ perspective of Florida.
“They come ready to work and come with skills that will help boost the economy. They are used to working hard and are great employees,” he said. “Many of them are looking for a place to start businesses, raise their families and go to school, so it’s a smart move attracting them here.”
Carbonell said the veteran population nationwide has shrunk 17 percent since 2010 because of deaths among the largest segments of veterans from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, but the number of veterans moving to Florida continues to rise.
The increasing population of older veterans has led to a corresponding growth in facilities to meet their medical needs. Earlier this month, Lake County and VA officials celebrated the opening of a new community based outpatient clinic in Tavares. The clinic is a few hundred feet larger than the clinic it replaced in Leesburg.
“This facility is not only larger but it also will allow us to reach veterans in a more centralized location in Lake County…,” said Orlando VA Medical Center director Timothy Liezert. “Since 2010, we’ve seen more and more veterans move into the state and those numbers have stayed up, so this clinic will be vital as the influx increases. Along with all the tax benefits for veterans, we also have the sun and sand, so of course our numbers are surging.”
Last year, the Orlando VA Medical Center at Lake Nona opened its doors as the hub for Central Florida and has quickly become the third-largest health-care network in the state. The 1.2 million square-foot facility, which cost $620 million, is the largest in the nation and helped serve the more than 106,000 veterans treated by the VA in Central Florida last year.
The number treated has gone up 20 percent from 2010 when around 88,000 veterans were treated by the VA in Central Florida. Kalagian is glad he moved here.
“There’s a great community of veterans here and it seems like there are more moving here every day,” Kalagian said. “With all the incentives, I can see the population continuing to grow. It’s cheaper [to live], the help is better and you’re living where others want to vacation.”