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.

Beyond the Military: Veterans in Public Office

The United States has always prided itself on the separation of the military from civilian service. It’s one of the foundational tenets of our republic, and a matter that George Washington took very seriously, as both the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and the first U.S. president.

Indeed, Washington invoked the separation of civilian from military power to reassure New Yorkers that they would not become beholden to a military-led government.

“When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen,” Washington wrote to the New York Legislature in 1775, as the populace worried about replacing the monarchy with a standing army.

Ironically, Washington set the standard for Americans’ comfort with military veterans in public office.

Of the first 25 presidents, 21 had military experience, beginning with Washington. The high-water mark for the custom of veterans entering public office peaked in the 1970s, when veterans made up 72 percent of the House of Representatives and 78 percent of the Senate. In the last Congress, the percentage was down to 18 and 21 percent, respectively.

The decline in the number of veterans in federal office can partly be attributed to the fact that, for better or worse, politics has become a career (as has the military). And while the military remains a viable option for individuals from all walks of life to build a career, the barriers to entry of public office are rising, increasingly dependent on the amount of money, power, and name recognition one can accumulate, not to mention the advancing age of the average lawmaker.

In the 114th Congress, the average age of the U.S. House member (was) 57, and the average senator’s age (was) 61. When looking at the average age of those who were newly elected in the past election, the average new representative was 52.3 years old; a new senator was 61. Meanwhile, when examining the average length of service, the typical representative was at 8.8 years (4.4 terms); the senator was at 9.7 years (1.6 terms).

By comparison, the median age of post-9/11 veterans is 33, with nearly 60 percent younger than 34. The median age of all other pre-9/11 veterans is 66.18

Despite the barriers, military veterans offer a unique contribution to the Legislature from having served in the Armed Forces. They are cognizant and respectful of the set of responsibilities, as enumerated in the Constitution, that the military holds in U.S. society, and as veterans, they are held in especially high regard in the public eye, which can’t be said for Congress.

A first-of-its-kind study looks at the role of veterans in state legislatures as a precursor for higher office. While veterans make up on average 9 percent of the adult U.S. population, they are on average 14 percent of the state legislatures across the 50 states, even lower than in federal office.

Out of 7,383 state legislators, 1,039 have military experience.

Veterans currently holding office in their state legislatures represent every branch of the Armed Forces, including the Army, Army Reserves, Army National Guard, Marine Corps, Marine Corps Reserves, Air Force, Air Force Reserves, Air National Guard, and Coast Guard.

They include both the pre-AVF (all-volunteer force) and the AVF eras. Some have served in peacetime and some in war — and some have served in both. They hail from a wide variety of veteran-era cohorts, from World War II to our contemporary post-9/11 designation. They have been on active and reserve duty, deployed multiple times, seen combat, and been awarded Purple Hearts and even Bronze or Silver Star Medals.

The study notes that in state legislatures, veterans are 70 percent Republican and 30 percent Democratic, but that this is not necessarily true across state lines.

The veteran political party division in state legislatures does not necessarily reflect the majority-minority party division. Additionally, several states feature political parties other than the Republican and the Democratic Party, with a few veteran legislators falling in these other ranks—such as the one unaffiliated state legislator in Maine and the one Conservative Party New York state legislator.

Additionally, the data reveal that 40 percent of the total veteran population is located in the 16 states making
up the South; states and localities where the highest numbers of veterans currently live are not necessarily where veterans make up the highest percentage of the state population; and the largest state legislatures are not necessarily in the largest or most highly populated states.

The study goes into a good amount of detail to break down representation in legislative bodies by other data, but the overall purpose is to set a a baseline from which to begin charting the movement of veterans from state-level public office to national office in Congress. It also serves another important purpose:

Only by filling out that study and tracking future election cycles will we be able to understand the political engagement of veterans, gauge how public-service-minded veterans are in the AVF era, and determine to what extent, as many have speculated, the post-9/11 generation is the new ‘greatest generation,’ more committed to public service than their parents.

In doing so, the hope is also to highlight the public service commitment of military veterans in general. While a handful of organizations have begun to survey veterans’ civic attitudes and behaviors and publish positive data about veterans as civic assets, residual Vietnam-era narratives linger. These misrepresent, often in powerful ways, that the military veteran is often a broken human being in need of society’s pity, rather than a capable and strengthening element for it. This study is one attempt to counter such misrepresentation.

Click here to read the article on legislative members from the military.