As Fewer Americans Serve In The Military, Veterans And Non-Veterans Socialize Less

Jan 2, 2018

Fewer than one percent of Americans are in the military, compared with about nine percent during World War II. Researchers say that's helped create a divide between veterans and non-veterans.

Army veteran Anthony Sadler spent more than thirty years in the military, including two deployments to Iraq.  But though he's no longer in the armed services, he still feels most comfortable around people with military backgrounds.

Many nights, you'll find him unwinding in the beer garden or at the canteen of  Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 76 in San Antonio. The sprawling Victorian-era building draws a crowd of mostly veterans and active duty personnel.

"If you went to another bar, or downtown, or a club, you couldn't share your feelings about the military," Sadler said as he smoked a cigarette on the post's patio.

Army veteran Anthony Sadler does most of his socializing at the VFW. 'If you went to another bar, or downtown or a club, you couldn't share your feelings about the military,' he said.
Credit Carson Frame / American Homefront

Sadler has civilian friends through church, but said the VFW is a place where he can be emotionally vulnerable. He said he sometimes talks with his fellow veterans about the harrowing experiences he had during his Army career, which included an assignment at the Abu Ghraib prison and a firefight where a fellow soldier died in his arms.

Those are experiences that non-veterans might not understand.

"If you cry, then people — especially men — will take it as a weakness and they wouldn't understand what brought that emotion," Sadler said. "But people here, we totally get it."

A social divide

Sadler's preference for socializing with other veterans may be indicative of a larger phenomenon.

Edelman Intelligence, a public relations firm, has been studying how veterans are perceived by the general population. In October, it compiled data about factors affecting the wellbeing of veterans, with a focus on employment, education and health.

Elisa Vitalo was the director for the study, which found that fewer than 26 percent of people believe they have a lot in common with veterans.

"I think that there is a perception that veterans have experiences that average citizens simply don't understand or can't understand," Vitalo said.

From that disconnect springs a well of misperceptions. For instance, in the study, non-veterans often underestimated the education levels of their veteran counterparts.

That makes it harder for veterans to get jobs, according to Vitalo.

"Our hypothesis here is that if this chasm between veterans and non-veterans is so wide, socially, they're at that disadvantage in forming those connections when trying to get employment," she said.

To improve veterans' job prospects, the Edelman study concluded that non-veterans and employers need to better understand who veterans are and what they bring to organizations and communities.

Is the military becoming its own social class?

The U.S. transitioned to an all-volunteer military in 1973, meaning the burdens of war began falling on fewer shoulders. The Defense Department also has consolidated military bases around the country, making it less likely that civilian and military communities overlap.

VFW Post 76 Commander John Ornelaz said he wishes more civilians would visit the post.
Credit Carson Frame / American Homefront

Admiral Mike Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says he's concerned the military is becoming its own separate class.

"Most American families aren't connected to the military, don't have kids that are in the military, don't have friends that have kids that are in the military," he said. "This is a little bit of an exaggeration, but it's almost like the French Foreign Legion."

But despite that, Elisa Vitalo of Edelman said bridging the gap between the military and civilian worlds is simple — at least in principle.

"I think we can institutionalize a lot of things," she said. "But ultimately I think this comes down to a bit more of a grassroots effort. Having a beer with a veteran, quite frankly. Making those one-on-one relationships is really ultimately the way we're going to move beyond these misperceptions."

John Ornelaz, the commander of VFW Post 76 in San Antonio, agrees. He said he doesn't think civilians can ever fully understand what he went through in Vietnam, but he wishes more would try.

"Come here and talk to us and understand what we went through, what we're going through, and how we feel and so forth," Ornelaz said.

"When we have civilians come in here, they'll ask questions about the VFW, the house, the history," he said. "We don't really go into details about our war experiences. Because they don't ask."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.