August 19, 2019

Perceptions of the Military Community

A Readout from the CNAS Annual Conference

Sharpening America’s strategic edge and sustaining the U.S. military advantage is about more than technology and budgets. Crucially, it is also about people: the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who operate the equipment and put boots on the ground are critical to success. However, both service members and civilians believe that the public “does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families.” When national security professionals and policymakers are thinking through whether and how to employ the force, it is deeply important they understand who serves in today’s military and how that service affects them in the long term.

At the recent CNAS Annual Conference, I had the pleasure of engaging the audience of national security professionals in a participatory exercise on Perceptions of the Military Community. By using the audience polling function of the conference app to ask a series of true/false questions, we assessed how much our audience—who cares deeply about national security—knew about members of the U.S. military, what they do, and how they fare once they return to civilian life. When addressing topics that many outside the natsec community don’t know much about or have misperceptions on, I urged the audience to think about what they can do to educate other Americans and ponder why some of these stereotypes have taken root. This recap goes through the questions, answers, and audience perceptions—you can also watch the video.

Who serves in the 1.2 million member All-Volunteer Force?

“Join the Army or go to jail”—those who have gotten in trouble with the law can join the military to avoid jail time.


The military runs background checks as part of routine screening of potential recruits, and almost all criminal behavior is disqualifying, with few exception, which 87 percent of the audience knew.

The military recruits heavily among the poorest Americans and represents a pathway out of poverty.


This is something I see on Twitter often, from folks who think the military is a valuable tool for those hoping to climb the socio-economic ladder and among those who think the military exploits Americans with no other options. In reality, those at both the highest and lowest ends of the economic spectrum are underrepresented, and the military draws most heavily from the middle class. Today, only about 1 in 4 young people is eligible for military service—and some of the disqualifying factors, such as obesity, are more prevalent in poor communities. Those who could theoretically benefit the most from serving are somewhat less likely to be able to serve. Only 58 percent of the audience answered this correctly.

Today’s service members are less educated than most Americans.


Virtually all service members have a high school diploma or equivalent, compared to just about 87 percent of other American adults. However, those currently serving are slightly less likely than other U.S. adults to have a bachelor’s degree or above. Also worth noting: 53 percent of troops list educational benefits as one of their motivations for serving, and they use those benefits at very high rates when they get out, so veterans have significantly higher rates of college than non-veterans. A solid 84 percent of our audience knew this was false – by comparison, only 19 percent of respondents to a more general poll believed veterans to have more education than their civilian counterparts.

The U.S. military recruits heavily from minority populations.


The answer to this is a bit complicated: today’s military is roughly representative of the population as a whole, though African-Americans are slightly overrepresented and Asians and Hispanics are slightly underrepresented. The stereotype that the military targets or exploits communities of color, though, is not born out by the numbers—and 75 percent of the audience knew that.

The military draws more heavily from southern states.


As 73 percent of the audience knew, whether due to greater exposure to the concept of serving based on the higher number of military installations in the south, increased likelihood of those with a military family member to join, or some other combination of factors, a higher percent of those from what’s sometimes called the “southern smile” (because of its shape on a map) do join the military.

The military is made up mostly of men.


Women have made up roughly 15 percent of the total force since the 1990s, even as the positions open to them have steadily increased. One hundred years after the first woman was allowed to officially enlist as a woman, the first women became infantrymen; today no roles are still formally closed to women. Despite occasional grumblings from some sectors in the civilian world, the services themselves also widely acknowledge that women are essential to fielding an effective force. Nearly 9 in 10 of audience members (88 percent) answered this question correctly.

What do service members do? Snipers and Navy Seals occupy a huge space in the public mind—are those typical military careers?

Under 10 percent of the total force is currently overseas.


While the United States has bases, engages in counter-terrorism training, does other exercises, conducts air or drone strikes, or engages in combat in 80 countries, overall only about 9 percent of the total force is overseas. Roughly two-thirds of the audience (65 percent) answered this correctly.

Most service members’ primary job is direct ground combat.


While the figure varies by branch of service, across the total force, only 14 percent of those who serve are in combat jobs, the majority are in some kind of support role. The overwhelming majority of our audience got this correct—at 98 percent; it was the question answered correctly by the highest percent of attendees.

Once these folks complete their military service and reenter civilian communities, how do veterans fare?

Veterans are more likely to be homeless than non-veterans.


Veterans are slightly overrepresented in the homeless population, despite the fact that the number of homeless veterans has been cut nearly in half since 2010, which only 51 percent of audience knew. Worryingly, some survey research done in 2015 by Got Your 6 showed that 46 percent of their respondents believe that a photo of a homeless-looking man without any clothing or signage identifying him as having a military connection is more likely to show a veteran. The association of homelessness with veteran status is cemented in public perception in a way that far outpaces both reality and the understanding within the national security space.

Veterans are more likely to be unemployed.


There is currently no statistically significant difference in overall unemployment rate between veterans and non-veterans overall—and 72 percent of our audience answered this correctly. For some minority groups, veteran status is associated with much lower rates of unemployment. Much more concerning: DoD reports that unemployment among active duty spouses sits at 24 percent, more than six times the national average.

The majority of combat veterans have PTSD.


There are a range of estimates, which vary a bit by service era, but overall, roughly 15 percent of combat veterans seem to develop PTSD. That is a higher rate than is prevalent in the general population, but is not the majority. However, the Got Your 6 survey found that 83 percent of respondents believed that veterans suffer from mental health issues. This audience fared better: 70 percent knew it was false.

Veterans are more likely to vote.


Veterans are more likely to vote in local elections than non-veterans, as 90 percent of the audience recognized.

Veterans do more volunteer work in their communities.


While veterans volunteer at roughly similar rates, those who do volunteer significantly more hours—and 91 percent of the audience recognized this.

Veterans earn more than non-veterans.


On a number of key measures, including levels of education, household income, rates of health insurance, and measures of poverty, veterans are doing better than their non-veteran counterparts. This was one of only two questions the majority of our audience got wrong: only 37 percent selected the correct answer.

Less than 1 percent of Americans have served.


Tricky phrasing tripped up the audience, 59 percent of whom thought it was true. Less than half of one percent of Americans are currently serving, but overall, veterans make up nearly 6 percent of the U.S. population. However, that number is shrinking rapidly as those who served in the major large conflicts of the past pass on.


It was fascinating to learn how much this diverse and engaged audience knew about those who serves in today’s all-volunteer force, what they do, and how they fare as veterans. Accurate information improves the ability to make good policy decisions. For example, data on the growing number of female veterans and their higher likelihood of having young children was one of the driving forces behind changing programs designed to house homeless veterans to include supportive services for veterans and their families. Problems must be understood to be solved.

The U.S. military advantage is made possible by people, so it is imperative that the American population is healthy and educated enough to support great power competition; that the military is able to recruit, retain, and sustain our incredible fighting force; and that we are able to adequately care for those “who shall have borne the battle” when they return home.

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