Even with Endless Wars, America Has Fewer Veterans Than Before
Older vets are dying at a faster rate than the retirements of current service members or their exits from the military would suggest
America is losing veterans faster than it is “making” them.
Year after year, soldiers, sailors and airmen engaged in Afghanistan now or since 2001, the longest military engagement in American history, retire from active duty and become veterans.
But they cannot keep pace with deaths of older veterans — particularly from the rapidly declining World War II generation.
As Americans recognize the roughly 1.3 million service personnel who since the Revolutionary War have paid the ultimate price, we might want to consider how few of our fellow citizens have served in uniform over the past several decades.
The Census Bureau notes that the United States, as of 2016, had nearly 18.5 million veterans, down 21 percent from 23.4 million veterans in 2005.
The decline is even starker considering the total U.S. population has increased since then. As a percentage of the population, veterans have declined from 8.1 percent to 5.7 percent since 2005.
The reason is not hard to discern. Although the United States has been in a near-constant state of war since the first Gulf War in 1990, modern warfare’s need for fewer soldiers and an all-volunteer military have resulted in a smaller share of Americans in the armed forces in more than a century.
Contrast that with World War II, when the nation committed itself totally to an all-out war effort. But that generation is passing rapidly. The number of Americans who served during World War II declined from more than 3.5 million to 855,586 from 2005 to 2016.
The decrease in the already small population of vets who served before World War II has been even more dramatic. The 58,550 remaining in 2005 nearly are gone. Just 7,241 remained in 2016.
Korean War veterans also rapidly are fading away, falling 49 percent from 2005 to 2016, to a few more than 1.6 million.
The decline of the Vietnam generation has been slower, but the march of time has claimed some of those veterans as well. The 6.67 million Vietnam-era veterans in 2016 represented a decline of nearly 15 percent from 2005.
Against those declines, veterans from the first Gulf War on have grown from 4.1 million to 5.8 million. To put that in perspective, though, 16.1 million Americans served in uniform from 1941 to 1945 during World War II.
And where do the veterans live? Mostly in smaller states and states with a heavy military presence.
Census figures indicate that Alaska has the highest percentage of veterans — 12.8 percent of the civilian population 18 and older. Other states where veterans make up at least 10 percent of the adult population are Montana (11.1 percent), Virginia (11 percent), Maine (10.7 percent) Wyoming (10.7 percent), Washington (10.2 percent), Hawaii (10.1 percent), South Carolina (10.1 percent), Nevada (10 percent), and New Mexico (10 percent).
Meanwhile, large states dominate the list of those with the fewest veterans as a share of the population.
Veterans make up just 5.1 percent of the adult civilian population in New York and the District of Columbia.
They represent less than 7 percent in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Utah.