America's veterans: A vibrant group with a lifetime of 'second service'
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Twice every year, Boston graduates a new class of firemen to serve in one of the oldest fire departments of the nation.  In early April, Boston graduated its most recent class, and of its nearly 50 new firemen, exactly everyone shared an increasingly rare trait in contemporary America: Each was a veteran of the U.S. military.

Veterans make up nearly 80 percent of Boston’s firefighting force, and fill countless other public service roles from policeman to elected official. Following federal and state mandates, Boston incorporates a “veterans preference” system in its public hiring — but that falls short of explaining the impetus of veterans there and across the nation continuing to be public servants in their communities.

Two years ago, the National Conference on Citizenship with Got Your 6 initiated the first sociological examination of veterans’ civic health. They had two principal reasons for doing this. The first is the public’s instinct that contemporary war veterans are a population that requires services to function in civil society rather than a population that has any valuable services to offer back: Around half of Americans today who see a homeless man believe he’s a veteran, for instance.

But, secondly, the data to counteract such negative public perceptions didn’t appear to exist: Got Your 6 had to pioneer research to discover that 90 percent of the time, Americans are incorrect about the homeless also being veterans.

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Thanks to both organizations, we now have empirical data that reveals that veterans actually strengthen their communities by volunteering, voting, engaging in local governments, helping neighbors, and participating in community organization. It even turns out that they do so at higher rates than their non-veteran counterparts.

Over 90 percent of veterans are interested in continuing their public service. Among post 9/11 veterans the sense of service and civic-mindedness seems particularly strong, especially in contrast to civilian Millennials: Outside of high rates of voting, nearly 40 percent indicated they have considered or are considering running for public office.

When the 115th Congress took office in January, around a third of the 59 new voting members had direct military experience. Despite losing several veterans to retirement, elections, and death, the number of veterans in Congress actually held steady for the first time in recent decades (presidential appointments have since decreased their number by one).

There are, in fact, increasing numbers of young veteran legislators. Their numbers in Congress have risen every election since 2006, with at least 27 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winning congressional races in 2016. A little over a third of all veterans running for national election in 2016 served after 2001, while we now know that post-9/11 veterans alone total 20 percent of all veteran legislators in the 50 state legislatures.

State legislatures tell a much wider story about veterans and their second service in public office today than does the U.S. Congress. Veterans are state legislators in all 50 states, representing on average 14 percent of each state’s combined legislatures — a total of 1,039 out of 7,383 state legislators have military experience.

The continuing if not increasing numbers of veterans taking up public service roles is historically more remarkable than these numbers might suggest. The establishment of the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) in 1973 had several unintended consequences, among which is that shrinking the size of the armed forces reduced the population which would even consider volunteering to serve in it.

Vietnam-era debates influenced something of a physical break between the military and political elite, with the upper echelons of society increasingly turning away from military service and the family members of those in the military increasingly choosing to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Today, a child from a military family is six times more likely to enter the military than his civilian-family peer.

Geography has also played a role. In general, children in large urban areas, as well as the children of elites, haven’t had much of a chance to become familiar with the military as an institution or with anyone serving in the military. For decades, there has been reduced to no access to the military through the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) because of its Vietnam-era withdrawal from highly urban universities and Ivy League campuses.

This is beginning to be reversed, but ROTC still has a disproportionate presence in the South and Midwest. And with the disappearance of military history courses and professors from college campuses, even fewer young adults have had the opportunity to consider the significance of military affairs in society.

Less than half of one percent of the population now serve on active duty, contrasted to the more than 12 million who were active duty military personnel in 1945. At around the same time that the AVF was instituted, veterans made up a little less than 14 percent of the total population, but they made up more than 70 percent of Congress. Today, veterans make up only 20 percent of Congress, leading to the question: Did public service post-Vietnam become inhospitable to veterans? Or, has something important changed about Congress and the representative process?

It appears it has. While the AVF professionalized the armed forces over the four-plus decades of its continued existence, over that same amount of time, public service — especially political office — has become something of a life-long profession. For one, the high costs and difficulties of mounting a campaign, let alone a successful one, have contributed to high incumbency rates and older and wealthier Congress members.

As early as WWII, British Field Marshal Earl Wavell had foreseen the rise of more professional armies and some of its political ramifications. Increasingly professionalized armies, he thought, would predicate an increasingly professional democracy, making it impossible for there to be an interchange between the two. “(M)odern inventions, by increasing (the trade of war’s) technicalities, have specialized it. It is much the same with politics. ... No longer can one man hope to exercise both callings, though both are branches of the same craft, the governance of men and the ordering of human affairs.”

Forty-plus years of the AVF puts us in position to weigh the evidence for and against Wavell’s thesis about professionalized armies and a “professionalized” elected class. Widening our lens and refocusing on the states, rather than looking only to the federal level, gives us a more thorough if not nuanced look at how veterans seem to be increasing their post-service engagement with public life through “second service.”

Widening our lens even further to take in veterans’ participation in other public service avenues outside of political office gives us the more remarkable story of a vibrant community of individuals who are not content merely to rest on the laurels of heroism or victimhood proffered them by a disengaged public, but who seek to re-enrich civil society by being active members and servants of it.

Rebecca Burgess manages the Program on American Citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.