Who are Veterans?

This post first appeared on the U.S. Census Blog Random Samplings 

The U.S. veteran population totals 19 million men and women living in the United States and Puerto Rico who have served on active duty in the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guard. These veterans served for different lengths of time and during different wartime and peacetime periods. They entered the military at different ages and came from different backgrounds. Some were drafted, while others volunteered.

Their differences make each veteran unique and influence the size and overall characteristics of veterans as a group. So, who are veterans? Understanding the population we call “veterans” requires some basics in military history and policies.

To start, we can think of veterans as two main cohorts — “draft era” and “All Volunteer Force” (AVF). Draft-era veterans are mainly those veterans who served in the military during the Vietnam era, Korean War or World War II. Forty-three years ago, in 1973, the draft ended and the AVF began. The draft-era military was substantially larger than today’s AVF.

To put this into perspective, 16 million people served in World War II, 6 million served in the Korean War and 9 million served during the Vietnam era (Figure 1). In contrast, AVF active-duty military strength has remained under 2 million each year since the 1990s. In 2015, there were just under 1 million living World War II veterans, 70 years after the end of the war, while our active duty military size was about 1.3 million service members.

Figure 1: Number Who Served During Selected Periods


Figure 2 shows the impact of the draft-era military on the composition of both the veteran and nonveteran populations. Because such a high proportion of men were drafted into the military during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam era, older nonveterans are predominately women.

Figure 2: Composition of the Veteran and Nonveteran Populations by Sex and Single Years of Age: 2015


The disparate sizes of the draft era and AVF military also affected the proportion of men who were veterans over time. By 2000, for example, most men who were old enough to have served in the Korean War and World War II were age 65 or older while those who were old enough to have joined the military since the start of the AVF were under the age of 45. In that year, about two out of three men age 65 or older were veterans compared with about one out of ten men under the age of 45. Over the past 15 years, those percentages have decreased as the draft-era cohort declines due to deaths and the AVF cohort nears age 65. In 2015, about 43 percent of men age 65 and older and 5 percent of men under the age of 45 were veterans.

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The aging of this large draft-era cohort also affects the size of the veteran population over time. Unlike the nonveteran population, which increases each year, the veteran population decreases each year as mortality in the draft-era cohort outpaces military discharges. In 2015, the median age of all draft-era veterans was 72 years. The largest living cohort of veterans today, with a median age of 68 years, served during the Vietnam era.

Military policies and enlistment requirements over time have also had an effect on the characteristics of veterans. Take four characteristics in particular: sex, race, citizenship and education. Figure 2 highlighted a unique aspect of the veteran population that sets it apart from the nonveteran population, the ratio of men to women. Less than 10 percent of veterans are women. In comparison, over half of nonveterans are women (Figure 3).

Women did not become a permanent part of the U.S. military [PDF 4.8 MB] until 1948. Between the early 1940s and mid-1970s, women were restricted to less than 2 percent of the military population. Since the advent of the AVF, women have joined the military in greater numbers and now make up a larger proportion of their veteran cohort than their predecessors. In 2015, 15.3 percent of AVF veterans were women, compared with 3.4 percent of draft-era veterans. The proportion of women in the total veteran population will continue increasing over the next several decades as the size of the draft-era cohort and the veteran population as a whole decline.

Veterans are a less racially diverse population than nonveterans, in part due to historical policies regarding the integration of the military during World War II and into the Korean War as well as the size of those older cohorts.  In 2015, 78 percent of all veterans were White non-Hispanic compared with 62.6 percent of nonveterans (Figure 3). Seven percent of veterans were Hispanic, compared with 17.2 percent of nonveterans.  Over time, the veteran population has become more diverse, which becomes clear when comparing veterans by age. About 65 percent of veterans under the age of 35 were White non-Hispanic in 2015 and 14.7 percent were Hispanic. Compare that with the age 75-and-older population of mainly Korean War and World War II veterans, of which 88.3 percent were White non-Hispanic and 3.9 percent were Hispanic.

Another aspect of the military that makes the veteran population unique is citizenship. While most members of the U.S. armed forces are citizens, citizenship is not a requirement for military enlistment. Special provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act have made it possible for those enlisted in the military to obtain U.S. citizenship. In 2015, less than one percent of the veteran population were not citizens, compared with 9 percent of nonveteran adults (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Selected Characteristics of Veterans and Nonveterans: 2015


A final example of how military requirements shape the veteran population is education. Each service branch has their own requirements for enlisted personnel, but, with few exceptions, they require a high school diploma. Therefore, veterans are generally more educated than nonveterans. Nearly 94 percent of veterans have a high school diploma or more as their highest level of education, compared with 86.4 percent of nonveterans (Figure 3). The majority of veterans have at least some college education, if not a completed degree.

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All the ways in which veterans are unique because of military history and policy changes tell us something about who veterans are as a group and how they are different from nonveterans. Veterans are mostly older, White, male citizens with at least a high school education. But, who are veterans, really? Some are your grandfathers: 52.4 percent of male veterans are 65 years or older. Some are your mothers: the median age of female veterans is 51 years. Some are your coworkers: 72.4 percent of male veterans and 68.1 percent of female veterans ages 18 to 64 are employed. Some are students at the local college: 23.7 percent of male veterans and 33.8 percent of female veterans ages 18 to 34 are enrolled in school. All are celebrated on Veterans Day.

Improving Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Treatment

Day after day, the service of men and women in the United States military protects the lives of millions of Americans. But when they return home, these veterans often fail to receive the mental health services they need. In fact, many veterans are not receiving any treatment for serious mental illnesses that affect their daily lives.

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The Problem

Insufficient mental health care for veterans can aggravate health problems among a demographic especially prone to mental illness. One in five veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan has major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, and one in four exhibits symptoms of substance abuse disorder. PTSD, which usually begins to take effect after a veteran has been home for three to four months, is strongly connected to traumatic brain injuries, another major mental health concern among veterans.

Despite this known prevalence of mental illness among veterans, half of veterans who require mental health treatment will not receive it due to a number of factors reported by the United States Government Accountability Office, including:

  • Personal embarrassment about service-related mental disabilities
  • Long wait times to receive mental health treatment
  • Shame over needing to seek mental health treatment
  • Fear of being seen as weak
  • Stigma associated with mental health issues
  • A lack of understanding or lack of awareness about mental health problems and treatment options
  • Logistical problems, such as long travel distances in order to receive this type of care
  • Concerns over the veteran mental health treatment offered by Veteran’s Affairs
  • Demographic barriers and false perceptions based on these demographics such as age or gender

Some of these factors, such as personal embarrassment and shame regarding mental illness, require education and changes in individual, structural and societal beliefs. Other factors, however, have potential for improvement through a few practical solutions.

Improving VA Treatment

Even more disturbing than the fact that only half of veterans who require mental health treatment receive it is that when veterans do seek mental health treatment, only a little more than half are given “adequate care.” A 2016 report from the Veterans Health Administration found that despite recent reform efforts, the agency still struggles with issues such as “flawed governance, insufficient staffing, inadequate facilities, antiquated IT systems and inefficient use of employees.” In December, USA Today reported from internal VA documents that Texas and Tennessee have some of the lowest-rated VA medical centers in the country, despite the fact that Texas has the most veterans of any state after California. These problems may lead veterans to avoid care, especially because in order to receive private care through the VA, veterans must wait more than 30 days, live more than 40 miles away or face excessive travel burdens.

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Expanding Telemental Health Programs

A long distance between home and any hospital often discourages veterans from pursuing treatment for mental illness. Since 24 percent of veterans live in rural areas, telemedicine programs have shown success in bringing care to this underserved population. Telemedicine allows veterans to receive care from the privacy and convenience of their home, which is also helpful for individuals with movement-related disabilities and mental health stigma concerns. According to VA Secretary David Shulkin, telemedicine programs have decreased days spent in bed by 56 percent, re-admissions by 32 percent, and total psychiatric admissions by 35 percent, and overall, veterans are very satisfied with telemedicine programs. Last May, the department announced plans to build five new Telemental Health Clinical Resource Centers to expand its online reach even further.

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Grappling with the Consequences

Untreated mental illness can greatly increase a person’s risk of suicide. Although veterans account for less than nine percent of the United States population, 18 percent of all suicides in the U.S. are committed by veterans. About 20 veterans commit suicide each day, and Shulkin has called suicide among veterans “a national emergency.”

To combat high suicide rates, the VA announced in March its plans to expand mental health care to former service members with “other than honorable” discharges for misconduct such as violence and illegal drug use. To accomplish this, the VA plans to hire 1,000 additional mental health providers by June or July and establish mental health phone service centers for rural residents.

Veterans and concerned loved ones can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 and press 1 to talk with someone or get help at any time.

Access to quality mental health treatment is a serious need for veterans. If we truly support our troops, we must honor them not only while they are actively serving us, but also in the weeks, months and years after they have returned home.

About the author: Ruby Redekopp is a University of Missouri journalism student from Hutchinson, Minnesota. She is passionate about helping people who are disadvantaged and plans to work in nonprofit public relations.