Census Bureau Finds High Disability Rates Among Post 9-11 Vets

June 4, 2020 by Dan McCue
Staff Sgt. Shawn D. Carter, who was wounded twice in combat during the Iraq war received his second Purple Heart award during a ceremony at the Maj. John P. Pryor Army Reserve Center at Joint Base McGuire-Dix, Lakehurst, N.J. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Morri)

WASHINGTON – America’s veteran population is changing, with its overall size declining, the number of women in its ranks on the rise, and a generation of Post 9-11 vets who are far more likely to suffer from a service-connected disability than their predecessors.

Those are primary findings in a report published earlier this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The study, called “Those Who Served: America’s Veterans From World War II to the War on Terror,” looks at the characteristics of the approximately 18 million Americans who were veterans of the U.S. armed forces in 2018.

Though that number still represented about 7% of the nation’s adult population, the bureau’s researchers noted that the total number of veterans declined by about a third since 2000, dropping from 26.4 million to the 18 million at the end of the study period.

The most significant decline occurred in the population of veterans who served in World War II. While 5.7 million of those veterans were still alive in 2000, there were fewer than 500,000 of them left among us in 2018.

But the report attributes the shrinking of the overall veteran population to more than mortality.

The authors note that in addition to the ravages of time, the armed forces are substantially smaller today than in the past, thanks mainly to the elimination of the draft in 1973 and the creation of an all-volunteer military force.

“Earlier wars swelled the size of the armed forces to unprecedented levels in America,” the report says. “In 1940, just before the United States entered World War II, the U.S. Armed Forces numbered fewer than 500,000.

“By 1945, that number surged to more than 12 million,” the authors continue. “Over the course of the war, more than 16.1 million Americans would serve worldwide. Though the size of the military grew again during the wars in Korea and Vietnam, it reached its height during World War II.”

The largest single group of veterans alive in 2018 served during the Vietnam era, which lasted from 1964 to 1975. They totaled 6.4 million two years ago, the Census Bureau said.

The second-largest cohort of living veterans at the time, about 4 million individuals, served during peacetime only.

The median age of veterans in 2018 was 65. By service period, Post-9/11 veterans were the youngest with a median age of about 37; Vietnam Era veterans had a median age of about 71; and World War II veterans were the oldest with a median age of about 93.

Ending the Draft Opened Door for More Women

Among the report’s most significant findings was that women make up a growing share of veterans. About 1.7 million, or 9% of veterans, were women in 2018. It is projected that number will jump to 17% by 2040. 

It attributes this rise to the greater opportunities created by the end of the draft in 1973, and to women being allowed to serve in combat roles since the 1990s.

“Because women had more opportunities to serve beginning in the 1990s, they make up a higher share of recent service cohorts,” the authors wrote. “For example, women make up about 17% of all Post-9/11 veterans and 15% of Gulf War veterans, compared with just 4% of Vietnam Era veterans.

“The female veterans who have served since September 2001 tend to be young, diverse, and highly educated,” the survey found. More than three quarters are under the age of 45. Almost one-quarter are African-American and 12% are Hispanic. And more than 40% have a college degree.

“Compared with the broader population of women who have never served, female veterans are more likely to have a college degree, to work full-time, year-round, and to have higher earnings when working full-time,” the report said.

Generally speaking, it found both men and women veterans from recent service periods had higher levels of education than their predecessors.

More than three-quarters of Post-9/11 and Gulf War veterans had at least some college experience, and more than one-third of Gulf War veterans had a college degree.

Post-9-11 Vets More Likely to Have Service-Related Disability

The most sobering finding of the analysis is that Post-9/11 veterans had a 43% chance of having a service-connected disability, after accounting for differences in demographic and social characteristics among veterans — significantly higher than that of veterans from other periods.

Among veterans who had a service-connected disability, Post-9/11 veterans had a 39% chance of having a disability rating of 70% or more — significantly higher than for veterans from other periods.

“Veterans have distinctive health issues related to their military service and are more likely to suffer from trauma-related injuries, substance abuse, and mental health disorders than people who have never served in the armed forces,” the authors said. “About one-quarter of all veterans had a service-connected disability in 2018, which is an injury, disease, or disability [associated with their] active duty.”

“Post-9/11 veterans may be more likely to have a service-connected disability because of distinctive tours of duty or service conditions that other cohorts did not experience,” the authors wrote. “For example, thanks to medical advances, veterans today are more likely to survive injuries that would have been fatal in past decades.

“The analysis in this report supports that explanation, while not ruling out other plausible explanations for the findings,” they add.

The report notes that the analysis it presents is limited in that it looks at the population of veterans in 2018, not veterans at the time of their separation from service.

“For older groups of veterans, only the healthiest are still alive,” the authors wrote. “Today’s veterans from the Vietnam Era, Korean War, and World War II may look healthier in comparison to Post 9/11 veterans because the most severely disabled from those older service periods have already died.

“In contrast, the healthiest Post-9/11 service members may still be serving and are not yet veterans, leaving the current group of Post-9/11 veterans with disproportionately higher rates of disability,” they said.

This report uses data from the 2018 American Community Survey. The ACS is a nationwide survey designed to provide timely and reliable data every year on the demographic, social, economic and housing characteristics of the nation, states, counties and other localities. The survey has an annual sample size of about 3.5 million addresses across the United States and Puerto Rico.

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