Some thoughts for Veterans Day 2019

In his Proclamation for Veterans Day 2019, President Trump called on all Americans to “pause to recognize the brave men and women who have fearlessly and faithfully worked to defend the United States and our freedom.”  As we contemplate Veterans Day 2019, let’s take a quick look at the experiences and thoughts of those who have served – along with the views of the American public more generally.  Let’s also and discuss a bit the challenges as we look ahead.

The difference between Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day  

For context, it’s important to understand the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day.  As I’ve written before, Memorial Day is intended to commemorate those who have died in the service, while Veterans Day (Nov 11) which is also a public holiday, is intended to honor all veterans.  It originated as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I, but – as reported here – “on June 1, 1954, Congress amended the Act of 1938, officially renaming ‘Armistice Day’ as ‘Veterans Day’ and thereby expanding the recognition of the holiday to include veterans of all American wars.”

Is it harder to find a veteran today? 

Source: Pew Research Center

If you think it’s harder to find a veteran these days you would be right.  According to the Census Bureau, about 7.3% of adult Americans have served in the military at some point.  Pew Research Center reported in 2017 that the percentage of veterans in the population is declining (in 1980 18% of adults had served).   Specifically, it said that by 2045, the numbers of veterans will decrease by 40% from today’s falling totals.   As the Pew chart to your right shows, the demographics of the veterans of 2045 will be different from those of today.

Since the active-duty military is now just 0.4 percent of the U.S. population. it isn’t difficult to understand why the size of the veteran population will shrink.  Today there are approximately 1.4 million people on active duty (about 225,000 are currently stationed overseas  in more than 160 countries).

However, during World War II, 16 million people served which was about 11% of the population served in the military.  If the same proportion of people were in the military today, the U.S. would have about 36 million troops.   Of the 16 million World War II veterans, only 389,000 are still alive, and about 292 die every day.  By the time you finish reading this blog, another World War II vet would have passed away.

What do those who served think about current issues? 

In the January/February  of this year The Smithsonian published a fascinating poll of “current and former members of the armed force” that “take[s] aim at conventional wisdom.”  Check it out here…you may be surprised.

Pew Research Center also has a new study about veterans and the public.  Among its findings is the conclusion that “most Americans look up to people who served in the military” and that they “associate discipline and patriotism with veterans.”   It also makes the point that:

“What it means to be a military veteran in the United States is being shaped by a new generation of service members. About one-in-five veterans today served on active duty after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Their collective experiences – from deployment to combat to the transition back to civilian life – are markedly different from those who served in previous eras.”

Although it is several years old, I think the video “Do you Remember me?” can give you a good sense as to what young people in the service think.  (It’s a somewhat melancholy realization that many of the people pictured in it have probably been veterans for some time now).   It’s very much worth spending a few minutes to watch.

Veteran employment and more

There is some good news on the veteran employment front.  The Department of Labor just reported that:

“In October 2019, the veteran unemployment rate remained at 3.2 percent, the same rate as last month. The non-veteran unemployment rate for October 2019 was 3.5 percent. This is the 14th consecutive month with a lower veteran unemployment rate than the non-veteran unemployment rate.”

Some highlights from the 2018 annual report:

  • The jobless rate for all veterans fell to an 18-year low of 3.5% in 2018, from its peak at 9.9% in 2011.
  • Unemployment for veterans who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces at any time since September 2001 dropped from 4.5 percent in 2017, to 3.5 percent in 2018 – the lowest rate recorded since BLS began collecting the data in 2008.
  • The unemployment rate for women veterans fell to 3.0 percent in 2018.
  • Among the 326,000 unemployed veterans in 2018, nearly 60 percent were age 45 and over; 35 percent were ages 25-44, and 6 percent were ages 18-24.
  • As of August 2018, about 1 in 3 employed veterans with a service-connected disability worked in the public sector, compared to about 1 in 5 veterans with no disability.
  • The unemployment rate of veterans varied across the country, ranging from 1.4 percent in Iowa to 6.5 percent in the District of Columbia.

One area where veteran “employment” is not increasing is in Congress.  A Nov 4, 2019 report from the Congressional Research Service says:

My friend Sen. Martha McSally (AZ) was an Air Force fighter pilot who fought in Afghanistan

“At the beginning of the 116th Congress, there were 96 individuals (17.8% of the total membership) who had served or were serving in the military, 6 fewer than at the beginning of the 115th Congress (102 Members)…The number of veterans in the 116th Congress reflects the trend of steady decline in recent decades in the number of Members who have served in the military. For example, 64% of the Members of the 97th Congress (1981-1982) were veterans, and in the 92nd Congress (1971-1972), 73% of the Members were veterans.” (Emphasis added.)

Area of concern: Suicides 

In his Proclamation, the President noted:

“We also must not forget or forsake our veterans in times of distress as they transition to civilian life.  That is why I signed an Executive Order in March addressing veteran suicide, a solemn crisis that requires urgent national action.  Through this step, we launched the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS), which is bringing together all levels of government and the private sector to improve the quality of life for our veterans, identify and assist veterans in need, and turn the tide on this tragic crisis.”

There is reason for concern.  The 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report was what the press calls “alarming” because it shows that “at least 60,000 veterans died by suicide between 2008 and 2017, with little sign that the crisis is abating despite suicide prevention being the VA’s top priority.”  The Military Times points out that “[a]lthough the total population of veterans declined by 18% during that span of years, more than 6,000 veterans died by suicide annually.”  The Times says that in “2017, more than 6,100 veterans died by suicide, an increase of 2% over 2016 and a total increase of 6% since 2008.”

According to a September 2019 article in MOAA Magazine the “suicide rate was 1.5 times greater for veterans than for nonveteran adults, after adjusting for age and gender.”  They cite experts who believe that to “combat alarmingly high suicide rates among veterans, the devastation of moral injury must be properly addressed.”

“Moral injury” is what occurs “when a person or group’s existing core moral foundations are so challenged by an experience, they are unable to justify, process, and integrate it into a reliable, meaningful system that sustains relationships and human flourishing.”

Area of concern: health care

In his Proclamation, the President also noted:

“As Americans, it is our sacred duty to care for and support those who have shown courage and conviction in selfless service to our country.  Safeguarding the health and welfare of our Nation’s veterans has been a top priority for my Administration.  Last year, I was proud to sign into law the VA MISSION Act, the most significant reform to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in more than 50 years.  This historic legislation allows veterans to seek timely care from trusted providers within their communities.  In 2018, I also signed the largest funding bill for the VA in history, securing $8.6 billion for veterans’ mental health services, $400 million for opioid abuse prevention, and $270 million for rural veterans’ health initiatives.  Further, I recently signed a Presidential Memorandum directing the Department of Education to discharge some types of Federal student loans owed by totally and permanently disabled veterans.”

Yet services for disabled veterans remains a concern.  A report last Friday from the National League of Cities (NLC) found that:

“According to a recent survey of injured post-9/11 veterans, 94 percent experienced physical injuries that are considered severe, 91 percent live with severe mental health conditions, and nearly a third need aid and attendance with everyday activities because of their injuries.” (Emphasis on “of injured” added; other emphasis in the original.)

In addition, NLC advises that of the “roughly 18 million veterans currently living in the U.S., more than 9 million rely on the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Health Administration for their care.”

Some veterans have a hard time finding care.  For example, although Duke Health (the medical arm of Duke University) accepts the military heath plan (TRICARE) for certain services, it won’t accept it for the all-important medical care entry point: Duke Primary CareThus, although I’m employed by Duke, I’m in the veteran-friendly University of North Carolina medical system.

More trouble may be on the horizon. A former Veterans’ Administration official says that the Medicare for All plan being bandied about is a concern for veterans and their families.  Darin Selnick says:

“Although Medicare for All would leave the government-run portion of the VA system intact, it would eliminate the Department of Defense’s TRICARE program, a network of private providers and military hospitals that provide health care for 9.4 million U.S military personnel, retirees, their families and some members of the reserves….Through TRICARE, service members and retirees have 11 plans to choose from, allowing them to tailor their coverage to their unique needs. The dismantling of TRICARE would almost certainly hurt military morale, retention and recruitment.”


What kind of compensation does a catastrophically injured veteran get from the government?  A 100% disabled veteran with a spouse and a child receives just over $40,000 per year.

Speaking of compensation, what is the pay for the average active duty servicemember?  For an enlisted soldier – whose job is considered to be the most stressful in the U.S. – the median pay is $26,802.

To put all that in context, the average police officer here in Durham, NC, makes $53,225, and the average household income for everyone is $56,375.  The median salary for first-year law firm associates was $155,000 in 2018 – with top firms forecasting to pay upwards of $200,000.  The average NBA player salary is $7.7 million. 

What the legal profession can do for veterans 

At the ABA’s 29th Annual Review of the field of National Security Law conference this past week, I renewed my quest to get the ABA to recognize that it is professional misconduct for a lawyer to engage in behavior that the lawyer knows or reasonably should know is harassment or discrimination on the basis of veteran status.  

In 2016 the ABA changed Rule 8.4 to classify as professional misconduct harassment or discrimination based on a myriad of different statuses, and I’ve calling since then to have veteran status included among them (see here and here).  For reasons I really can’t fathom, I’ve had zero success.  But, yes, you read it correctly, the ABA won’t characterize harassing veterans as professional misconduct.  To me, that’s outrageous. As I’ve said:

“It’s unfortunate that we as a society – or as a professional group – have to even identify specific groups when we are talking about a lawyer’s behavior related to discrimination and harassment.  Aren’t all such acts of unlawful discrimination and harassment inherently bad?  But if we’re drawing up a list, let’s not leave out the ones who fight and sacrifice to protect our way of life and its structure of laws and freedoms.”

Veterans also need better access to legal services.  As one writer noted recently, “Legal issues account for three of the top 10 unmet needs of homeless veterans, according to the annual survey of homeless and formerly homeless veterans by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.”  To its credit, the ABA does have its Veterans Legal Initiative which helps provide pro bone legal services to veteransm but a new report by the Pew Research center shows that many veterans have issue that could be ameliorated by legal assistance.

Here at Duke Law the Veterans Assistance Project (VAP) focuses on helping  “low-income veterans who are facing service-related legal barriers, often associated with their disability benefits or discharge status.  Duke Law volunteers interview clients about their service and situation, research the relevant statutes and processes, and prepare advice under the supervision of a Legal Aid attorney.”

“While VAP volunteers have varying levels of experience and familiarity with the military, they share a deep respect for veterans, an interest in the challenges they face, and a commitment to helping veterans live self-sufficiently and successfully seek economic opportunity.”

Some ideas for higher-education

The legal academy needs to be more welcoming to veterans.  Because of the way tenure and other aspects of the academic bureaucracy works, it is very difficult for veterans to get a foothold on law faculties.  Many schools claim, as Duke University does,  that veteran status is one of the qualities it seeks in building a diverse and inclusive faculty, but I haven’t seen much effort towards that end.

Unfortunately, the ‘voice’ of veterans is often missing from the dialogues on national security law issues beyond just law school faculties.  Two of the major national security law blogs have only a minuscule representation of veterans on their editorial and management mastheads: Just Security has only one; Lawfare, just two

And it’s not just in the legal arena that the voice of veterans is often missing. Last year a Duke veteran wrote that “Duke is a military friendly school. Duke hosts ROTC units, several military fellowships, and has over 200 veterans enrolled in its graduate schools,” but also pointed out that “of Duke’s 6,400 undergraduate students, only two are veterans, two.”  He notes that as “the civilian-military divide continues to grow, fewer schools will recognize the value of a veteran unless they are able to make an impact on campus.”  He contends:

“A 22-year old veteran is not like an 18-year old high school senior. A veteran’s experiences and knowledge set them apart. Most veterans have made life-or-death decisions during their tour of duty, know how to make consequential decisions in a matter of minutes and have developed leadership skills that are not comparable to your average high school honor society president. If Duke wants to continue to promote a diverse and inclusive campus, it must recognize the skills and experiences a veteran can bring into the classroom.”

Developing tomorrow’s veterans

In recent years Duke has significantly ramped up its support of veterans, with re-invigorated Veterans’ Student Affairs office,  and today it will host its annual Veterans Day Commemoration at the Duke Chapel.  Yet more needs to be done not just at Duke, but at other top schools to increase the presence of veterans in undergraduate classrooms.  Speaking at Duke in 2010, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates encouraged students to consider becoming tomorrow’s veterans.  Duke Today reported:

“More of the nation’s leading universities should join Duke in providing officers and others to serve in the military, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told a packed Page Auditorium Wednesday evening.”

“If America’s best and brightest people will not step forward, who then will step forward?” Gates asked, calling on students in the audience and at other leading schools to “go outside your comfort zone and take a risk, in every sense of the word.” Talented young people who serve in the military are “given extraordinary responsibility at a young age,” Gates said, leading troops “at an age when their peers are reading spreadsheets and making photo copies.”

More recently, Kathy Roth-Douquet wrote an important article in Foreign Policy entitled “America’s Elite Needs to Get Back in Uniform.”  Among other things, she notes that “Far fewer than 1 percent of top college graduates—those who go on to newsrooms, C-suites, and government committees—have or will serve in the military” despite the fact that, she says, [m]litary service fosters connections that transcend the era of bitter partisanship” and that it “is a unifying force in a time of deep division.”  But Roth-Douquet says that “[s]elling the idea of military service to those without a personal connection is increasingly challenging.”  Obviously, having a classmate who is a veteran is one way of closing that “connection” gap.

Despite all the burdens of military service, those who have served recommend it as a career path for young people; regrettably 50% of Americans would not – despite the fact that Americans overwhelming have very positive views about the armed forces, and consider being a military officer among the most prestigious of professions.

Some final thoughts:

The President closed his Proclamation with words worth pondering:

“Time after time, throughout the history of our Republic, veterans have defended our way of life with integrity, dedication, and distinction.  In respectful recognition of the contributions our service members have made to advance peace and freedom around the world, the Congress has provided (5 U.S.C. 6103(a)) that November 11 of each year shall be set aside as a legal public holiday to honor our Nation’s veterans.  As Commander in Chief of our heroic Armed Forces, I humbly thank our veterans and their families for their willingness to answer the call of duty and for their unwavering love of country.  Today, we pledge always to fight for those who have fought for us, our veterans, who represent the best of America.  They deserve our prayers, our unending support, and our eternal gratitude.”

Because of my own career I’ve had the honor of knowing many veterans.  Today I think of three young men I briefly met more than a decade ago in the Army’s Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany Each was fresh from the battlefields of Iraq and each had suffered in combat a traumatic amputation of a foot.

So recent were their injuries that when I entered their room, they tried to stand up for the visiting general, seeming to forget for that moment the challenges their new condition presented them – and would present for them for the rest of their lives.  As I moved from bed to bed, one solider who could not have been much more than in his very early twenties, grasped my hand and heart-breakeningly asked me “sir, what’s my wife going to say?”  Of course, I had no real idea, but I told him “She’ll say she loves you.”  I often think of that veteran, and pray that I was right.


You may also like...