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On November 11, the United States will celebrate Veterans Day, a day dedicated to honoring the men and women who have served our country through military service. But take a moment to stop and consider how much, or little, you might know about the Military and our service members.  

  • How many Americans currently serve in the military?
  • What do Service members do when they are not deployed overseas?
  • Do they all live on military bases?
  • Do they get the weekends off?

The fact is, most Americans don’t know much or think they know more than they actually do.  According to research conducted by the DoD’s Joint Advertising, Market Research and Studies (JAMRS), much of this has to do with the fact that Americans today are less interested in and more disconnected from the Military than in past years.  Despite being a one of the most trusted institutions in the United States today, there is an increasing social and cultural disconnect between the civilian and military communities. The result is that there are several myths that shape our perception of what we think life is like in the Military.

What causes the military-civilian divide? Three primary factors account for this increasing separation. 

First, the active duty force has substantially decreased in size in the last three decades, shifting from just over 2 million in 1990 to just under 1.3 million by 2017 (or less than half of 1% of the total U.S. population).  Compare this to the 16.1 million, 5.7 million, and 8.7 million active duty members who served during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, respectively.

Second, the veteran population is decreasing—a trend that is projected to continue over the next decade.  Taken together, fewer Americans serve in the Military compared to past generations and most Americans have fewer connections to those who have.

Third, and perhaps one of the more important factors driving the military-civilian gap, is the increasingly narrow segment of society who chooses to serve.  Today’s service members are more likely to come from a family where military service is the tradition and, as a result of military base consolidations, many citizens are not even exposed to these service members in their daily life.  As a result, although they respect the Military and those who serve, few are interested in serving themselves. For example, although the majority of 18 to 29-year olds (60%) supported sending ground troops to fight ISIS, only a handful (16%) responded that they had already served or would consider joining the Military if additional troop numbers were needed.

Democracy is strongest when its citizens participate in and are engaged with its institutions.  It’s important, therefore, that the military and civilian communities remain strongly connected to and representative of each other.  While the Department of Defense has taken steps to address the military-civilian gap, including better communicating the intrinsic value and benefits of military service, bridging it can’t happen without the effort of American civilians.  On this Veterans Day take some time to learn a bit more about those who serve or have served.  Find a veteran or service member you know.  Ask them about what they do, what their careers and jobs are like, and what their aspirations are.  At the end of the day, the Military is comprised of your fellow citizens, people much more like you than you may realize.

About the author

Dr. Jesse Harrington

Dr. Jesse Harrington is a senior researcher at Fors Marsh Group with extensive experience conducting general and applied research for both academic audiences and private and government clients. He has a background in the study of cross-cultural issues, organizational conflict and culture, and social class. At Fors Marsh Group, Jesse conducts research for the Department of Defense’s Joint Advertising, Marking Research & Studies (JAMRS) Program. This work focuses on the perceptions, motivations, and habits of new recruits within all Services of the United States Military.

Prior to joining Fors Marsh Group, Jesse was a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and MURI Graduate Fellow at the University of Maryland. His research was focused primarily on issues of culture. In particular, he examined cultural differences in the strength of social norms (otherwise known as tightness-looseness) between nations, U.S. regions and states, and social classes and its relationship with ecological threat. He also helped lead a project funded by the Army Research Institute to examine maladaptive cultures for conflict management within hospitals and other organizations.

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