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for people who care about the West

Photos from rural America’s veteran heartland

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

 

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.