Military, vets crucial to Dayton’s future. Is Dayton crucial for them?

Military personnel and veterans form a critical part of the cultural and economic backbone — and future — of Southwest Ohio.

Home to some 32,000 military, civilian and contractor employees, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base remains Ohio’s biggest single-site center of employment. Add to that Ohio ranks sixth in the nation in its number of military veterans and retirees, with about 848,000 veterans or retirees.

That’s why the Dayton Daily News dug into what our region and Ohio is doing to make the Dayton area and the state the best place for the military and veterans as part of our Path Forward project that examines the most pressing issues facing our community.

For this story, we talked to local and national experts to see what has been done and what more is needed.

James Rickel, a U.S. Department of Defense liaison to several states, said when he calls Ohio legislators, they never fail to call back. The state has also made several changes in recent years to make it easier for military families to relocate here.

“I tell you this: Ohio has been my best state out of the eight states I have,” Rickel said.

Some local experts say more should be done to market the region, though, especially to veterans who haven’t worked or lived here before.

The upshot isn’t complicated. If a state welcomes military families and veterans, the Department of Defense notices. And so do defense-sector companies.

“In order for Ohio to remain competitive with other states to gain new military jobs, we need to enact legislation that supports military spouses and families,” Jeff Hoagland, president and chief executive of the Dayton Development Coalition, said earlier this year.

A recent analysis shows statewide federal and military installations like Wright-Patterson and the Springfield Air National Guard Base have a nearly $70 billion gross impact statewide, supporting more than 380,000 jobs.

Locally, federal installations have a $19.4 billion gross economic impact on the region, supporting 103,000 jobs, according to the analysis released in October.

Indeed, the economic impact of federal and military installations in Western Ohio — which includes Dayton and Springfield — amounts to 17.1% of the region’s economy, that Dayton Development Coalition-commissioned analysis found.

“We aren’t resting on our laurels,” said retired Maj. Gen. Deborah Ashenhurst, director of the Ohio Department of Veterans Services and a former leader of the Ohio National Guard.

Like many military veterans, when Dave Weeks and his wife decided where to retire in the mid-1990s, the presence of family and employment were primary concerns.

But another factor drew the now-64-year-old Air Force veteran to retire in the Dayton area — the Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Dayton’s West side.

The prospect of regular, veteran-focused medical care could not be ignored, as far as the Desert Storm veteran was concerned.

“Dayton is one of the best towns for veterans to get care,” said Weeks, originally from South Bend, Ind., who today is commander of the Disabled American Veterans Jesse R. Stephanics Chapter 9.

Ohio is ‘doing great’

Rickel also serves as liaison to Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

In an interview with the Dayton Daily News, he cautioned that the Department of Defense evaluates communities only in certain ways. The department does not gauge regional crime and tax rates, for instance, or environmental, health care or similar issues.

“There are a lot of areas that we’re not monitoring,” he said.

The DOD’s list of top-priority issues measures what Rickel called “transitional issues.”

The list of 10 issues examines questions such as: How easy or difficult is it for a military spouse to transfer a professional license to another state to continue a career? How tricky is it to enroll a child in the school of a family’s choice? How welcoming is a state or locale to a newly arrived active-duty family?

Said Rickel: “If you ask me specifically, how is Ohio doing on our key issues? They’re doing great.”

Of Ohio lawmakers, he said: “They’ve done phenomenal in the last three or four years.”

On a list of “state-specific progress on key issues and sub-issues,” Ohio has six issues graded by the DOD as “green,” representing passage of a state policy favorable to military families in transition.

One issue — concerning Ohio’s signing on to occupational licensing compacts with other states — is dark blue, representing a matter that has advanced in the General Assembly.

Another issue — requiring state employees to ask about a citizen’s veteran’s status in routine interactions — is graded light blue, showing that the Ohio Senate has passed a bill that is now pending in the House.

And one issue that appears to have made little progress: School open enrollment flexibility. On the state’s “Military State Source Policy” report card, that area is colored grey, representing “no progress.”

Open enrollment is a form of public school choice that allows students to attend a different school than the one to which they are assigned, based on place of residence.

“It basically gives them a little bit of flexibility in their enrollment status,” Rickel said.

Ohio’s report card shows no legislation passed on the issue.

Another issue, “concurrent jurisdiction,” also shows no legislation passed. An example of a “best practice” in that arena would be Florida, where the DOD says the state retains concurrent jurisdiction over civil and criminal processes that falls within the state’s authority, as long as the activities do not conflict with security procedures on military bases.

Rickel said it was too soon to discuss Ohio’s movement there, saying his department was only beginning to gauge that issue.

Why veterans say they chose to stay here

While there are situations when active-duty military personnel can express preferences about their next assignment — depending on a service member’s occupation and the service’s needs — they go where they are ordered.

But when a veteran decides to retire in a particular place, that can be seen as an authentic choice.

“They chose to live here, they chose to retire here, there is something that brought them here,” Ashenhurst said. “And then they want to make a difference in their community and their state because of that.”

Cassie Barlow is a retired Air Force colonel and former commander of the 88th Air Base Wing, the unit that acts as landlord and custodian unit for sprawling Wright-Patterson.

She retired in Dayton in 2014 when she left the Air Force, and she agrees that decision speaks for itself. Ohio and Dayton arguably have better job opportunities and has a better cost of living, Barlow said.

“You don’t have to wait in traffic,” she said. “You can buy a house for a very reasonable price.”

Carl Smith, a 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran, agrees.

“It’s very economical to live here,” said Smith, a Huber Heights resident. “You’ve got the change of the seasons.”

“At the end of the day, a mountain or a beach does nothing if you have to pay $500,000 for a house, if your taxes are going to be really high and you have to drive an hour to work every day,” Barlow said.

“In my mind, those things quickly go away, if you have all those other barriers in place,” she said.

‘You immediately feel welcome’

Barlow lost count of the number of times a stranger picked up her lunch or breakfast tab while she served at Wright-Patterson.

“There are some communities around the country where you immediately feel welcome,” she said. For her, Dayton was one of them.

Raul Sierra is founder and owner of Beavercreek’s SierTeKLtd, which has a joint venture with fellow defense contractor Peerless Technologies (SierTeK-Peerless Joint Venture), in Fairborn.

Sierra, a U.S. Army veteran, had been working at Wright-Patterson as a contractor before he started his company. He wanted to be close to the base, which proved to be an engine of opportunities for his company.

And the workforce he needed was close at hand, too.

“It was primarily about work, and also the large veteran population we have here helps us in terms of hiring,” Sierra said.

About 40% of his employees are veterans, the Fairborn resident said. Their knowledge and security clearances are useful to SierTek.

And Sierra has relied on the local VA in the past. “I’ve found it very useful,” he said.

More can be done for military families and veterans, Barlow and others said. Ohio should try to draw not just those who serve or have served here, but others unfamiliar with the area.

“You can never do enough for active-duty and veterans,” said Dayton attorney and former state representative Jim Butler, a veteran of the U.S. Navy. “We can never rest with what we have already accomplished.”

Ashenhurst said it’s unusual for a state to have veterans services offices in every county, as Ohio does. She said the presence of those offices, which offer a range of services — helping veterans maximize VA claims or find records — should not be underestimated.

“That’s where the rubber hits the road,” she said.

Key issues for the U.S. Department of Defense

Enhanced military spouse licensure portability: Senate Bill 7 mandated state licensing agencies to issue licenses or certificates to military members and spouses who already hold a valid license to practice a trade or profession in another state. Ohio’s status: Policy passed

Military spouse occupational license access: Ease of license transfer. Ohio’s status: Policy passed.

Licensing compacts: States can sign onto other state compacts to allow spouses to take advantage of state-to-state reciprocity in recognizing professional licenses. Ohio’s status: Issue advanced legislatively.

Purple Star schools program: Recognizes schools that show a “major commitment” to students and families connected to the military. Ohio’s status: Policy passed.

Advance enrollment: Local education agencies would be allowed to permit children of military families to participate in both virtual school enrollments and advanced enrollments as they prepare to move to a new military installation with permanent duty station order in hand. Previous law required military families to wait until they are physically located in district boundaries before they can register for courses and start courses. Ohio’s status: Policy passed.

In-state tuition continuity: Grants in-state tuition for all military family members regardless of sponsor’s location. Ohio’s status: Policy passed.

Child abuse investigation and reporting: Requires public children services agencies to report child abuse or neglect in military families to the appropriate military authorities. Ohio’s status: Policy passed.

Ask the question campaign: Requires state employees to inquire into a citizen’s veteran status as a first step in sharing information about veteran’s services. Ohio’s status: Senate Bill 213 passed the Senate in August 2021 and is pending in the Ohio House.

Open enrollment flexibility. Ohio’s status: No progress indicated.

Sources:, Ohio Department of Education, Ohio Department of Veterans Services.

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