Underappreciated: Veterans’ Contributions to America After Military Service

Do you know a veteran? If you don’t, you are not alone. Sixteen million-strong in the Greatest Generation, just about all Americans knew a veteran following World War II. They were perceived as the most honorable among us, and as a result they were revered and studied for their character traits.

That has changed, according to Gary Schmitt and Rebecca Burgess, director and program manager, respectively, of the Program on American Citizenship. The Greatest Generation is dying and the new generation of service members is a much smaller group than it used to be.

As a result, Americans don’t know a veteran anymore, not like back in the day. This unfamiliarity has led to a decline in appreciation of veterans’ contributions, and the repercussions are not good.

We now tend to view (veterans) in a bipolar way, either as heroes or victims. Around half of Americans who see a homeless man believe he’s a veteran, one study found — they’re wrong 90% of the time — yet they also rush to thank veterans for their service.

Americans, in other words, don’t understand veterans. This is partly due to the professionalization of the military. In 1973 the federal government ended conscription and established the all-volunteer force. As the population grew and the military drastically shrank, the military-civilian divide grew wider and became self-reinforcing. Today, the child of a career-military parent is six times as likely to make the military his career, while less than 1% of Americans serve. Veterans are often assumed not to be representative of America at large.

The distorted view of veterans is unfortunate, particularly because veterans’ contributions to our civic culture today are likely disproportionately higher than society’s as a whole. Limited data suggest that veterans are more inclined to participate in public service and civic life — even after they leave military service — than the general population.

Once again, they are carrying the weight of our liberty on their shoulders.

Shortly after World War II, University of Chicago sociologist Samuel Stouffer launched an entire field of study dedicated to the effect of military service on attitudes and behavior in civilian life. Repeating those studies, which documented the activities of returning veterans after World War II, in the modern era would still be very helpful, not because of their impact on the health care system or the discovery of appropriate treatments for PTSD, but because veterans demonstrate qualities many of us don’t embody.

With a 21st century steeped in war, it couldn’t hurt to know more about the latest generation of veterans.

It’s likely that veterans’ participation in civic life, and especially in politics and elected office, will improve the country similarly to how the World War II generation’s involvement did. There are signs that it already is. But this is something we should know, rather than speculate about, the next time we see a homeless individual or thank vets for their service.

Americans don’t grasp just how much veterans do for America, both inside and outside the service, but an instinctive understanding of veterans’ contributions explains why public opinion holds them in higher regard than other entities that enjoy public trust (read: Congress and the media, to name a couple).

So even as veterans humbly engage in public service — after already stepping up to participate in the all-volunteer armed forces — we as Americans can try to learn from their example.

Read more about veterans’ service.