U.S. Veterans: Who And Where They Are
By Harrison Hartley, Staff Writer
Veterans of wars or other combat actions in which the United States has been involved are often unconsciously characterized as a homogenous group of like-minded men (still, even in these enlightened times, mostly men). Obviously, this is not correct. Aside from the increasingly large number of women who serve in dangerous, unforgiving places, the men who served were never all of one type. Having been drafted (five times) and eventually shipped off to Vietnam in time for the very interesting Tet Offensive of 1968, I can attest to the fact that the people with whom I served came from all walks of life and were as individually unique as members of any population might be.
I suppose that may have changed a little, given that the draft is more likely to result in a random selection of personnel whereas men and women who enlist are more likely to share some traits in common, but my long tenure as a university instructor who works extensively with both active and ex-military students tells me that even given a volunteer force, the differences between individual service men and women are many and widely varied. Why shouldn’t they be? Men and women of vastly disparate characters and capacities can settle on similar courses of action because they happen to agree at that point. Not all service men and women are “gung ho” “Sergeant Rock” types, and that is a very good thing. A “Rambo” may be useful in certain desperate and trying circumstances, but positively counterproductive when it’s time to quiet things down; which is (we often forget) the whole purpose of combat in the first place. We fight not to fight, but to stop fighting. This is not a paradox. As Americans, we fight only when we must and our object is always to end the fighting as quickly and with a small a loss of life and as little injury to all sides as possible.
Well, that’s the ideal anyway, though we have perhaps not always lived up to it. Even the occasional failure of governance (as with the foolish and costly invasion of Iraq) does not reflect badly on the men and women in uniform who do their duty to the best of their ability, as they have sworn to do. And even though single members of the military or small groups fail the American ideal from time to time, the marvel is how consistently our fighting men and women comport themselves honorably in situations where it would be perfectly understandable if about every other one of them went berserk.
That, above all, is why we should do tribute to anyone who has served in harm’s way, and why we should compensate such men and women appropriately by supporting their education, their health care, and their reestablishment in civilian society (by supplying grants for housing for some term, or low interest loans for business start-up costs). It’s no more than their fair due, and we fail as a nation when we fail our veterans.
So, who are these people, and where are they? To begin with, in 2011, there were 21.5 million military veterans of all kinds in the U.S. That’s about 6.5% of the whole population. Of that group, 1.6 million were women, 2.3 million were Black, and 9.2 million were over 65 years of age. (That includes me, and that almost certainly refers to the few WWII and Korean War vets left, as well as the fairly large number of us who spent a happy tour or two in Southeast Asia.)
As to where they are, that’s a little surprising. “All over the place” is (of course) the correct answer, but three states have more than a million ex-military veterans: California (with 1.9 million), Florida (with 1.6 million), and Texas (with 1.6 million). Curiously, however, the state with the largest percentage of population who are veterans is Alaska, where 14% of citizens 18 and older have served in the military. The runners-up in this category (with 12% or a little more each) are (in order) Maine, Montana, Virginia, and Wyoming.
As to other demographic characteristics… well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. For example, veterans don’t really do as well as they should with their educational opportunities. Overall they’re fine with high school (92.3% of veterans 25 and older have a high school diploma whereas it’s only 86% for the general population), but they don’t avail themselves of university quite as readily as they could and certainly should (26.3% of veterans 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 28.5% of the general population)
Otherwise, vets do pretty well. Though there are too many tragic ex-military personnel who have dropped out of society and are homeless, the great majority of veterans work (9.1 million were still on the job in 2011, and many others have worked steadily and are retired) and their overall income is above the norm. (The 2011 average median income, adjusted for inflation, was $25,811 whereas the average veteran’s income was $35,821.) About 9% of them own non-farm businesses or are partners and majority owners of non-farm businesses, about 3.5 million of are disabled, and 71% of them voted in the 2008 Presidential election, though only 57% of them voted in the 2010 Congressional election.
And: that’s who and where they are (according to the U.S. Census Bureau). We should grant them the respect and support they deserve, and the best gift we can give our veterans is the gift of peace; the assurance that their sons and daughters will not have to face the dangers they faced. That is my wish for this and every Veteran’s Day. Salute!