I watched the coverage of the September 11 attacks from Los Angeles, where I had just started law school after four years in the Army. I remember watching the attacks in horror, and thinking that we were now at war.
I had no idea at the time what that would mean for my generation, let alone for me.
Twelve years later, with the war in Iraq over, and the end of the war in Afghanistan within sight, we can now define the post Sept. 11 Veterans generation, and make sense of their sacrifices, struggles, and experiences.
As of July 31, 2012, 2,453,036 service members have deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations in the global war on terrorism. This number is likely higher now, probably closer to 2.6 million because of the tremendous turnover of troops. To put that in perspective, approximately 1.8 million troops served in the Korean War, 3.4 million deployed to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War (although just 2.6 million troops actually served in country), and just 695,000 U.S. troops fought in the first Gulf War. The U.S. population has grown considerably, such that today’s post Sept. 11 veterans make up smaller fraction of the country than their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations did. Nonetheless, today’s cohort of post-9/11 combat veterans is roughly the same size as the cohorts that fought in Korea and Vietnam, and more than three times larger than the one that fought the first Gulf War.
However, the post Sept. 11 veterans generation looks very different from the long green line of mostly men who served this nation before in uniform. Today’s military is more diverse in racial terms than ever before, with African Americans representing nearly 14% of the post Sept. 11 veterans generation, and Latinos making up more than 10%. These numbers in today’s force are slowly diversifying the overall veterans population too. Today’s population of veterans also includes more women than ever before. More than 400,000 women have served since Sept. 11, with more than 290,000 deployed overseas — more than the number of women who served in the military during WWII, Korea, and Vietnam combined.
The average age for the overall population of veterans in the U.S. is approximately 64, reflecting the massive generations of veterans who served from WWII through Vietnam. However, today’s veterans are much younger: 62% of those who served in combat after Sept. 11 deployed before their 29th birthday, with two thirds of those serving before they turned 25. However, despite their young age, most of today’s veterans were married at the time of their deployment, and most of those were married with children. These military families served, too — the first to experience their loved ones’ war via email, cell phones, instant messaging, and Skype.
Despite advances in battlefield medicine and body armor, some members of the post Sept. 11 veterans generation did not come home. As of this past weekend, 6,741 U.S. troops have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn, the names of the campaigns encompassing the global war on terrorism. Another 52,000 have been seriously wounded in action. And, according to the leading study in the field, approximately one in five Iraq or Afghanistan veterans will come home with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury. As the post-Sept. 11 veterans cohort comes home, it is seeking care from Veterans Affairs, and filing claims for disability compensation at record rates.
Roughly half of the Sept. 11 veterans have left the military already. Each year, another 150,000 or so more will leave active duty, until they have all transitioned back to civilian life. So far, more than 1 million post-Sept. 11 veterans have used the new GI Bill to attend college or graduate school. Many others have returned home to communities across the country to find jobs in the public or private sector. A few have run for office since leaving the service; 12 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans now serve in Congress, and more will likely join them in years to come.
I joined the Army in 1997 when I graduated from UCLA, and served four years on active duty before transitioning to the reserves to attend law school. I spent three more years in the reserves before I went to Iraq in 2005. During my combat tour, I served as an adviser to the Iraqi police in Baqubah, the violent capital of Iraq’s Diyala province. I came home from Iraq in fall 2006, at a time when the war was going badly, and the nation was deeply divided over whether and how to continue fighting there.
Despite its divisions over the post-Sept. 11 wars, the nation has always, for the most part, welcomed its veterans home with open arms. At times, this gratitude has felt uncomfortable, leaving me unsure how to respond when strangers tell me, “Thank you for your service.” Now I accept these small gestures, and I’m grateful that the nation welcomes home its warriors despite its conflicted feelings on the wars.
However, I worry about what lies ahead for the post-Sept. 11 veterans generation. With the war in Iraq over, and the war in Afghanistan fading, the nation may slowly turn its attention away from the 2.6 million men and women who served in combat since Sept. 11, towards other priorities at home and abroad.
We cannot and should not turn our back on this generation. We have a moral obligation to care for those that we send into battle, and that obligation does not end when the wars do. Equally important, we will miss an enormous opportunity to leverage this generation if we ignore the expertise and experience they have earned through their service since Sept. 11.