Less than half of one percent of Americans are currently on active duty in the military, compared with about 2 percent during the Vietnam era and about 9 percent during World War II.
That may be contributing to civilians' lack of understanding about military life, with veterans increasingly choosing to associate with one another for friendship and support.
San Antonio is home to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 76, the oldest VFW post in Texas. It’s a sprawling Victorian-era building, complete with a canteen and outdoor beer garden. On weekday nights, it draws a crowd of mostly veterans and active duty personnel — with the occasional civilian mixed in.
Army veteran Anthony Sadler has been a member of the post for about two years. He was deployed twice during his 30-year career in the military, and he had a harrowing experience in Iraq in the early 2000s.
“I had a soldier that got shot, and I ran to get him, and right in front of me he just gave up the ghost,” Sadler said. “We're not used to that as human beings. We’re not prepared.”
Sadler has civilian friends from his church, but he spends most of his time around people with a military background. The VFW is a place where he says he can be emotionally vulnerable, unlike at civilian bars.
“If you went to another bar, or downtown or a club, you couldn't share your feelings about military,” Sadler said. “If you cry, then people — especially men — will take it as a weakness and they wouldn't understand what brought that emotion. But people here, we totally get it.”
Sadler’s preference for socializing with other veterans — as opposed to civilians — may be indicative of a larger phenomenon.
A Social Divide
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 well-being of veterans, with a focus on employment, education and health.
Elisa Vitalo was the director for this year’s study, which found that less 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. In the study, non-veterans often underestimated the education levels of their veteran counterparts — or believed they were more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
That’s making 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 concludes non-veterans and employers need a better understanding of who veterans are and what they bring to organizations and communities.
Geographical, Policy Obstacles
The U.S. transitioned to an all-volunteer military force in 1973, meaning that the burdens of war began falling on fewer shoulders. Since the early 1990's, the Defense Department has consolidated military bases across the country, making it harder for civilian and military communities to overlap.
Adm. Mike Mullen, 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. “I liken it to, and this is a little bit of an exaggeration, but it's almost like the French Foreign Legion.”
But Elisa Vitalo of Edelman said, despite all this, 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, agrees. He said he doesn’t think civilians can ever fully understand what he went through as a soldier in Vietnam, but he wishes they would try.
“I wish more of them did,” Ornelaz said. “That they would come here and talk to us and understand what we went through, what we're going through, and how we feel and so forth.”
That hasn’t been the case so far.
“When we have civilians come in here, they'll ask questions about the VFW, the house, the history. We don't really go into details about our war experiences. Because they don't ask.”
Until civilians start asking, veterans at the VFW seem more than happy to share a few drinks among themselves.
Carson Frame can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @carson_frame
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.