Photos from rural America’s veteran heartland

These Nevada counties outrank almost anywhere else in the country for per capita veteran populations.

  • JoAnne Rotter and retired Army private first class James Walker, of American Legion Post 18, prepare for a Memorial Day procession at a cemetery in Round Mountain, Nev. In central Nevada, veterans’ organizations are few and far between. Each spring, Legionnaires travel many miles to pay their respects at veterans’ graves.

    Terray Sylvester
  • Jay Gunter, a judge and undertaker from Hawthorne, Nev., leaves a flag at a veteran’s grave during a Memorial Day ceremony in the tiny mining town of Manhattan.

    Terray Sylvester
  • Neil Artlip walks in the hills above the Nellis Air Force Base bombing range near his home in Goldfield, Nev. Artlip is a son and nephew of veterans.

    Terray Sylvester
  • Dawn over Goldfield, the Esmeralda County seat. At the height of its boom in the early 1900s, the mining town was home to more than 20,000 people. Today, its population is roughly 200.

    Terray Sylvester
  • Former submariner Bob Jackson tends a lilac bush on his property in Goldfield. His is the only lawn in town.

    Terray Sylvester
  • After serving as a Marine in Korea, John Path chased boyhood dreams of hard rock mining into Esmeralda County. He still holds dozens of claims across the U.S., but he now rarely strays from his home on the edge of Goldfield. “I’m up here at the end of the road and no one bothers me,” he says. “If one or two cars a week go down my road that don’t belong here, that’s a traffic jam.”

    Terray Sylvester
  • Rifles and a quote hang in the home of Bill Kirby, a retired Marine and former county commissioner who lives in Esmeralda County's Fish Lake Valley: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9."

    Terray Sylvester
  • In the Dinky Diner, Goldfield’s only restaurant, Retired Navy Chief David Beth (seated) and his wife, Patty Huber-Beth, make the acquaintance of another local Navy veteran, Skip Spears, and his wife, Teena Spears.

    Terray Sylvester
  • Former Army chaplain Sharon Sirnes Artlip talks with her neighbor, retired Army Specialist Milton Sochor Jr., in her gift shop in Goldfield. “You know your neighbors” in Goldfield, she says. “You can call on them for help. You don’t have that in larger cities.”

    Terray Sylvester
  • Navy veteran Vernon Fackrell stands in his yard in Goldfield. He shares his home with a combat veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, retired Army Sergeant Nate Lutrell.

    Terray Sylvester
  • P.K. Higgins Jr. served in military intelligence in the Army in West Berlin. He opened the Goldfield Radio Museum two years ago when he realized that in Esmeralda, where land is inexpensive and building codes nonexistent, “I can do anything I want.”

    Terray Sylvester
  • Leland Wallace calls his wife, Marlene, from their farm in Esmeralda County’s Fish Lake Valley. The two grew up together in the area. Aside from the years they spent in Panama, where Leland was stationed as an Army MP, they have lived almost nowhere else.

    Terray Sylvester
  • Evening on the outskirts of Goldfield, Nevada.

    Terray Sylvester

 

If you’re searching for a portrait of military veterans in the rural U.S., there is perhaps nowhere better to turn than central Nevada. According to figures from the Census Bureau and the Department of Veterans Affairs, per capita veteran populations in a handful of desert counties — Esmeralda, Mineral, Churchill, Nye and their neighbors — outrank those of almost every other county in the country.

This is desolate terrain. Take, for instance, Esmeralda, where about 800 people occupy 3,589 square miles. The roads in Goldfield, the county seat, are unpaved. Residents choose their own street addresses. One lives at a number in the millions, another at 1 Pooh Corner. There is no hospital in the county, and so, as a county commissioner likes to joke, no one dies in Esmeralda. 

Twenty percent of Esmeralda’s residents have served in the military, a rate triple the national average, but roughly equivalent to surrounding counties. These veterans’ affinity for the desert sagebrush is not entirely a surprise. As a former Vietnam P.O.W. puts it, “You get to Esmeralda from Las Vegas and a weight lifts off your shoulders. That little green sign marking the county line is a pretty son of a bitch.” Veterans come for the low cost of living, too. Esmeralda, for example, lacks a building code, leaving many residents free to inhabit whatever hand-built home they can afford.  

Their decision entails hardships — the nearest VA medical center may be hours away in Reno or Las Vegas — but they relish their isolation, and in that, they share something with the military itself. For the area isn’t simply a peaceful escape. This region is the heart of Nevada's militarized landscape. Goldfield is not far from Nellis Air Force Base and the largest combat training range in the U.S. Windows in town sometimes shudder with the bombs dropping nearby. Sometimes the detonations light up the night sky.

Terray Sylvester is a freelance editorial photographer based in Berkeley, California.