I am a veteran. That means something different today than it did when I was inducted into the Navy many years ago.
Veterans Day was Thursday, and I did a little online look into the changing profile of the American veteran. Pew was a source. Statista is an excellent source for charts and numbers. The mainstream media (bless them) has made a point of recognizing those who served in uniform, and all over the country, especially in small towns and city neighborhoods where servicemen and women still have names and faces, local people took time out to recognize our service and give us a salute.
The face of the American veteran is changing, reflecting the changes in the overall national population, and in that, I see hope for the future. Some may look at the demographics and lament the falling percentages of those who serve in uniform, but the story is more complicated than the numbers. Yes, I understand the views of those who say everyone could be better off with a few years of serving the national interests, especially under the discipline of the military.
But I also see the point of those who see the futility of past wars and are glad their family did not have to endure the experience. One thing is true no matter what side of the argument you support: Military service can make or break an individual, and only part of it is about personal character. A lot of it has to do with timing and who is running things.
Old white guys like me are dwindling, numerically. That’s not necessarily bad news; it just is. Inevitably, we are statistically less dominant because new Americans in uniform include more women, more ethnic diversity, and more who enlist because they want to serve.
Most of my generation served because if we didn’t enlist, we’d be drafted (this may be why many of my cohorts have little sympathy for vaccine resisters who complain they don’t want to be told they have no choice).
There are about 19 million veterans in America. Of those over 75, just under 44% are veterans, as are 30% of men 65 to 74, and more than 13% aged 55 to 64.
Historically, males make up 89% of the veteran numbers; women, 11%. That will grow to 18% over the next 25 years or so.
When I was a kid, every adult male I knew was a veteran. My aunt Mary was an Army nurse. Just a few years ago, more than 80% of those serving in Congress were veterans; now, it’s 17%, but there are more women who served in uniform now continuing to serve in Washington — and in other elected offices across the nation.
Hispanics in uniform will double their numbers in the next few years, according to one projection. Blacks are expected to increase in percentage from 13% to 15%. Those veterans of tomorrow will have opportunities that their grandparents never had. Instead of being limited to service jobs — glorified servants — they’ll be the officers and leaders of missions and units or hold key roles in technical as well as combat ops.
The death and funeral of Gen. Colin Powell earlier this month calls attention to a life of service that should give every citizen something to think about. Here was a man whose achievements and character showed us the quintessential American veteran. He took what he had and built something of great value with it. He shared his vision and potential with people of all backgrounds and aspirations and abilities and did it with dedication and class.
So, yes, I am a veteran, and I thank anyone who says they appreciate my service. I did my duty — not always with grace and dignity — but I showed up and I stayed until I finished my tour. I am grateful to every person who served, no matter what branch. Others gave infinitely more.
Veterans Day is for those of us who survived; now let us mark the date in May when we salute those who did not come home. Memorial Day weighs more than Veterans Day, in my book.
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Dean Minnich served as a Navy photojournalist in Vietnam and the Pacific. He returned to his newspaper jobs in Maryland and Pennsylvania and was a county commissioner.