It’s a silent exodus that Americans can sense, but maybe not quite see.
The gradual disappearance of millions of veterans has accelerated rapidly — even as the few remaining veteran strongholds, such as Sumter County, continue to swell.
Here, 14 percent of residents have worn an armed forces uniform, compared to 7 percent nationally. That’s down from 18 percent nationally in 1980, according to the
U.S. Census Bureau.
This year, our local total veteran population is approximately 16,000 — down from its peak of 20,000 three years ago.
Still, that’s more than twice the number living here in 2008.
Florida now is home to more World War II veterans than any other state. But at their current death rate, we will bury our last World War II veteran within five years.
Locally, about 10,000 of the veteran population — nearly half — fought in the 20-year-long Vietnam War.
The veterans of World War II and the Korean War spent an average of 7 percent of their lives in the military, according to census microdata.
Their baby boomer children spent only 4 percent.
“American society already is returning to the real ‘normalcy’ of our deeper historical past,” said Elwood Carlson, a demographer at Florida State University, “in which only a rather small minority share military experience as a unifying memory.”
The American public is indeed increasingly disconnected from the military and the wars it fought since 2001, compared to those who lived through the wars of the 20th century, according to the Pew Research Center.
This growing gap has roots in a watershed event: the elimination of the draft in 1973 following the contentious years of the Vietnam War.
The reliance since then on enlisted volunteers has meant that only about 0.5 percent of Americans have served on active duty at any given time since 9/11.
By comparison, more than 2 percent of Americans served in the Korean War and nearly 9 percent served in World War II.
By 2045, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs estimates there will be around
12 million veterans, a roughly 40 percent decrease from current numbers. By that time, Gulf War-era veterans are projected to make up a majority of veterans, and most of those who served in the Vietnam era or earlier will have died.
More than three-quarters (77 percent) of adults 50 and over said in a 2011 survey that they had a spouse, parent, sibling or child who had served in the military. But that number falls to 57 percent of those ages 30 to 49 and to 33 percent of adults under 29.
In addition to the substantially smaller numbers of those who have served, generational shifts also are resulting in loosening connections between the general public and the military.
Both the military and the general public agree that Americans don’t understand military life.
More than 8 in 10 (84 percent) post-9/11 veterans say the public does not understand well or at all the problems that those in the military face.
However, the post-9/11 veterans served at a time when the military was, and still is, the most respected institution in the nation, according to the 2011 survey.
Veterans from earlier eras are mindful of this shift in public opinion.
Among veterans who served before 9/11, 70 percent say that the American public has more respect for those who serve in the military now than it did at the time of their own service.
While the public expresses favorable views of many federal agencies, the VA received the lowest rating among 10 agencies and departments in a Pew Research Center survey
Americans continue to see veterans’ services as an important priority. In a separate survey, 75 percent of people said that if they were making the federal budget, they would increase spending for veterans’ benefits and services – the highest share of all 14 program areas included in the survey,
As the share of Americans who are veterans has declined, so has the share of Congress members who served in the military. In the current Congress, 20 percent of senators and 19 percent of representatives have prior military service, down drastically from just a few decades ago. However, there are signs more veterans could run for office in the future.