Number of Americans Who’ve Served in the Military Is Rapidly Declining

As America this weekend honors the men and women who have defended the country and its values, it will pay homage to a veteran population that is slowly shrinking as the venerable World War II generation dies off.

According to the most recent figures compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, just shy of 18.5 million Americans have served in the Armed Forces. That is down from 18.8 million the year before and has declined 15 percent from 2010, when there were nearly 21.8 million veterans.

The decline is even more dramatic when measured against overall population growth. The share of American adults with military experience declined from 9.3 percent to 7.4 percent from 2010 to 2016.

The population totals are only a small element of the flood of data, mostly from the Census Bureau's annual American Community Survey, measuring vets this Veterans Day. The statistics indicate that veterans are diverse, doing comparatively well economically, and participate at high rates in the nation's most sacred democratic duty — voting.

Here are six things to know about veterans in America:

1.) Females veterans are on the rise.Even as the number of veterans declines overall, the female veteran population is slowly growing.

The Census Bureau did not even ask women about their military service until 1980.

The female veteran population totaled almost 1.6 million in 2016, up from a little more than 1.57 million the year before. The 2016 total was about 2 percent higher than in 2010, when the figure stood at a little more than 1.56 million.

2.) The veteran population "looks like America," to use a favorite progressive phrase. Reflecting the diversity of the military itself, veterans come from every racial and ethnic background.

The 2016 census data show that 11.6 percent of veterans are black, only slightly less than the 12.2 percent share of the total population. American Indians and Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders are represented in the veteran population at rates roughly equivalent to the general population.

The only ethnic groups significantly underrepresented are Hispanics and Asians. The Latino share of veterans is less than half of the total population. And the percent of Asians in America is 3.5 times as high as their percentage of veterans.

3.) Time is wreaking havoc on World War II veterans. In not too many years, there will be no one left of the men and women who fought the 20th century's costliest and most consequential war and then came home to transform America into a superpower.

In 2005, 3.4 million veterans had served during World War II and made up 14.7 percent of all veterans. By 2016, that number had plummeted by 78 percent to 768,263, and they made up just 4.2 percent of veterans.

Not surprisingly, the veteran population has grown dramatically at the other end of the spectrum. In 2005, a little less than 4.1 million veterans had served during the Gulf War, either the 1991 effort to knock Iraq out of Kuwait or the post-9/11 period.

By 2016, almost 7.1 million veterans had served during those periods. Their share of all vets increased from 17.4 percent in 2005 to 38.1 percent in 2016.

4.) Veterans are most likely to live where other Americans live. Three states in 2016 had more than a million veterans, and they were the three most populous states — California, Texas and Florida, in that order.

But it's a different story when it comes to the share of the population that has served in the military. California's veteran share of the population, 5.4 percent, ranks 48th among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Number one is Alaska, where 12.2 percent of the adult population is made up of veterans. Wyoming (10.7 percent), Montana (10.5), Virginia (10.4), and Hawaii (9.7) round out the top five.

5.) Veterans earn more money — despite slightly less education. The median income for veterans in 2016 was $39,494 — compared with $28,347 for those who have not served in the military. Male veterans make more than their male counterparts who have never served, $40,076 vs. $35,365. Female vets make more, too — $34,178 compared with $23,445 for nonveterans.

Related: How One Veteran's Enlistment Changed His Life

Despite the higher incomes, veterans lag somewhat education-wise. In 2016, 31.5 percent of non-veterans 25 and older, but only 28.3 percent of veterans 25 and older, had bachelor's degrees or better.

6.) Veterans are more civic-minded — at least as measured by voting. Some 14.4 million veterans cast ballots during the 2016 presidential election, according to census figures. That represents a 69.6 percent turnout rate among veterans, compared with 60.6 percent of voting-age, nonveteran U.S. citizens.

The Census Bureau does not track which candidates they supported.

Last Modified: November 10, 2017, 3:19 pm

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