1. We’re losing manpower and buying power
After fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. government faces a new threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (more commonly known as ISIS). This comes at a time when the military’s annual budget is not expected to grow. Reductions to planned defense spending under the Budget Control Act of 2011 would exceed $1 trillion from spending plans from 2012 to 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Defense estimates.
“In 10 years, we’d only be able to afford a smaller force at the same [budget] level as today,” says Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment, a think-tank in Washington, D.C. That said, total national security spending topped $967 billion in 2014, up roughly 50% since 2000, according to Lindsay Koshgarian research director at the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization in Northampton, Mass. which provides analysis of the federal budget. But this figure also includes $151.3 billion from Veterans Affairs and $51 billion in homeland security, and other non-Department of Defense costs.
Speaking of the Pentagon’s ongoing spending cuts and uncertainty over the Department of Defense budgets, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work last month told a defense conference that the Pentagon should “stop the madness.” The National Defense Panel, a bipartisan commission chartered by Congress, found that they constitute a “serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States.” What’s more, “near-term gaps in training and maintenance diminish readiness,” according to this report published in March 2014 by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Budget Brief for 2015.
Manpower is shrinking, too. The number of active service members has fallen by 17% to 1,373,249 (excluding the Coast Guard) at the end of October 2014 from 1,610,490 two decades ago, according to the U.S. Department of the Defense data, and could be further reduced over the next five years. (That figure has moved up and down over the years, and peaked at over 12 million during World War II.) The Army has the largest number of active duty members (505,982) followed by the Navy (325,818), the Air Force (314,789) and the Marine Corps (186,402), according to the latest figures for October 2014 (pdf). “Reductions to end strength [the size of the force] will occur regardless of whether or not sequestration returns,” a DoD spokesman says.
Although military pay is exempted from sequestration — the 2011 deal struck between the White House and Congress to reduce the budget deficit to what economists regard as sustainable levels — under President Obama’s sequestration exemption, the military health care system and future pay raises are not and 80% of military households earning at least $50,000 a year (versus just 36% in the general population) still feel anxious about sequestration according to a survey released in October by First Command Financial Services; that’s up 18 percentage points since the end of the first quarter. Some 79% of military families expect to be at least somewhat financially impacted by potential cuts.
2. The military is a middle-class institution
Just about all enlisted members of the U.S. military — 99%, an all-time high — have a high school diploma and/or some college experience, according to the most recent report (pdf) by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. Education also improves with rank: The percentage of active officers who have a Bachelor’s and/or an advanced degree was 82.4% in 2012; although that’s down from 89.6% in 1995. This compares favorably to non-military personnel: Just over 30% of civilian adults 25 and under have a B.A., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The B.A. rate for enlisted personnel — while much lower — rose to 5.9% from 3.4% over the same period. “The military is a way to get out and get an education,” says Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “It’s perceived as a very meritocratic organization.”
“The military in 2014 is distinctly middle class,” Brooks says, or at least headed that way. There’s still a post-Vietnam “hangover or perception” among the American public that the military is predominantly composed of poor kids from rural areas, she adds. “That’s definitely no longer true. It’s more of a small town military than extremely rural or extremely urban military.” Although there was some relaxing of recruiting standards in the mid-2000s during the Iraq War, she says the military today requires a high school diploma or GED, and has relatively tough physical fitness requirements.
The percentage of military personnel recruited from areas with the lowest and highest average incomes is about the same (7%) and represents the lowest rates of recruitment, according to a2010 report by the National Priorities Project. The highest percentage of recruits (12%) comes from areas closest to the median household income in the U.S. (These percentages have changed little over the last five years. (The military doesn’t offer data on household income of recruits, so this report based its findings on the household income of each recruit’s zip code.)
3. Service members are more likely to have money troubles
When U.S. service members return from active duty, studies show that they’re more likely to face serious financial problems than civilians. They’re almost twice as likely to carry some month-to-month credit card debt (58%) than civilians (34%), according to a survey released last May and carried out by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and Pioneer Services, a division of MidCountry Bank in Bloomington, Minn. Twice as many service members as civilians have paid less than the minimum required payment on credit cards in the last 12 months (6% versus 3%), the study concluded.
While health issues like PTSD or depression and physical disabilities can play a part, the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan came at a bad time for job seekers. More than two-thirds of veterans (69%) consider “finding a job” the No. 1 challenge after leaving active service, according to a 2012 survey of 2,453 service members, 1,845 of whom were veterans of the second Gulf War. The survey was carried out by Prudential Financial Inc. for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The No. 2 challenge is navigating the complex benefit and support system for veterans.
In an effort to address this, the Obama administration and Department of Defense want to introduce stricter rules to help protect military service personnel from unsavory lenders. Included in the proposals, for example, is a new rule that says creditors may not charge an annual percentage rate of more than 36% on all consumer credit; this previously only applied to payday loans, vehicle title loans, and tax refund anticipation loans. The proposed legislation is designed to “help ensure that our service members and their families are as far beyond the reach of financial exploitation as possible.”
4. Sexual-assault allegations far outnumber reports
There was an 8% increase in sexual assault allegations from fiscal year 2013 to 2014 (a total of 5,983) after a 50% increase the previous year. The military now receives a report from an estimated 1 in 4 victims up from 1 in 10 in 2012. However, the estimated number of service members experiencing sexual assault was 19,000 to 20,000 in 2014, down from 26,000 in 2012, according the DoD report released last week. The DoD provides an anonymous “safe helpline” for 24/7 support for those who have not yet decided to file a report. “For those victims who are considering making a report, it’s our goal to give them options that respect their privacy, their rights, and their desire to participate in the military justice process,” a DoD spokeswoman says.
The DoD established a Joint Task Force for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in 2004, and this year introduced more measures to make it easier for victims of sexual assault to come forward, a department spokeswoman says. This includes special victims counsel attorneys, improved training on the program for military members and elevating prosecution decisions out of the units where the victim and suspect serve to a “senior, impartial commander.” It’s not a problem unique to the military: College fraternity members who signed up to rape prevention programs were less likely to commit sexually coercive acts than a control group of men who joined fraternities, studies have found.
But some lawmakers say changes in how the military addresses such cases don’t go far enough, especially when prosecuting cases. Among them is Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, who says the military faces an “epidemic” of rape and sexual assault. In 2011 and 2013, she introduced the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, which proposed taking the reporting, oversight, investigation and victim care of sexual assaults out of the hands of the military’s normal chain of command and, instead, passing those responsibilities to non-military prosecutors. The legislation was never enacted. But there were other sweeping reforms in 2012: DoD policy prohibits commanders from investigating or evaluating the validity of a sexual assault report themselves and sexual assaults joins rape as an offense with no statute of limitations.
5. Our R&D is trailing the private sector
Once upon a time — about half-a-century ago — the U.S. military was at the forefront of the technological revolution, and played a role in developing nuclear power, jet propulsion, communication satellites and even the early development of computers and the Internet. But the Department of Defense has since been upstaged by the private sector. “The U.S. relies on technology to be an effective fighting force, but with relatively smaller budgets and a cumbersome process it’s difficult for them to get access to the best technology,” says Ben FitzGerald, senior fellow and director at the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan, nonprofit think-tank in Washington, D.C.
U.S. corporations have an estimated budget of $307.5 billion for research and development projects in 2014, according to Battelle Memorial Institute, a private nonprofit science and technology development firm. U.S. federal spending on R&D is in “turmoil,” the report (pdf) noted, “because of enormous pressures to pare federal spending, especially defense and aerospace budgets.” The Pentagon is still the largest contributor to federal research and development projects and enacted $62.8 billion in federal research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) funding in 2014 versus $63.3 billion in 2013. Half-a-dozen companies in the private sector have more than three quarters of the DoD’s budget this year ($54 billion), according to management consulting firm Strategy&, Samsung alone had R&D spending of $13.4 billion in 2014, followed by Intel ($10.6 billion). (At current cap levels, RDT&E would decline by 1.3% per year from 2015 to 2019.)
The White House was criticized for failing to anticipate the invasion of Crimea by Russian-backed rebels and the push into Iraq by ISIS. FitzGerald says existing military technologies allow the U.S. to respond quickly, but warns that “the U.S. military advantage is predicated on technological superiority. Declining budgets, lower purchasing power and outdated business models are putting that superiority at significant risk.” Last month, the White House requested that Congressboost the budget for Overseas Contingency Operations, not covered by sequestration, including for satellites and other data technology. And, according to a 2012 report by the Council on Foreign Relations Competition, the civilian market may spur a higher pace of innovation than the military demands: “The rapid growth of the videogame industry sped the development of virtual reality training systems for soldiers. Notably, no other developed nation allocates more than 30% of government R&D support to defense.”
6. Veterans are vulnerable to becoming homeless.
Veterans with minor financial problems, like bouncing a check or exceeding their credit limit, are four times more likely to become homeless within the next year than veterans without such problems, according to a survey of 1,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in the American Journal of Public Health. In January 2014, there were 578,424 homeless people in the U.S. on a single night and among them 49,933 were veterans, according to a separate U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report released last October. “There is still a tremendous amount of work ahead of us but the strategy is working to end homelessness as we’ve come to know it,” U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said at the launch of the report.
While still a problem, homelessness among the nation’s 22.2 million veterans fell by 10% drop since 2010 among all homeless people and 33% fall in homelessness among veterans. “Huge progress has been made,” says Jake Maguire, spokesman for Community Solutions, a New York-based non-profit focusing on homelessness and neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. But he still worries about the newest generation of veterans. “There’s a huge generation of vets coming back home right now. Things are a lot better than when folks came home from Vietnam, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”
So what’s changed? In 2008, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs created Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) which has awarded 10,000 vouchers each year to homeless veterans and those at risk. The VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program also gives rental subsidy vouchers for those considered vulnerable. “They’re still a population that’s vulnerable to being homeless, especially those with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress,” Maguire says, “but the military has gotten better at how it screens for these things.” The VA also provides guaranteed home loans and offers help to avoid mortgage deficiency/foreclosure to veterans who have hit a rough patch.
7. People may grill you about what you’ve seen
Some military veterans have fielded inappropriate questions after returning from active duty. Rudy Uribe, 47, is president and CEO of commercial staffing firm Recruit Veterans in Cedar Park, Texas, and served 11 years in the U.S. Marines, leaving as a captain. These, he says, are just some questions veterans who have returned from active duty deal with: “Have you ever been in combat? What did you see? What did you do?” Uribe says, “These are inappropriate questions and a lot of veterans don’t feel the need to talk about that.” Uribe was once asked by an interviewer — who himself was a U.S. Navy veteran — if his management style would be draconian. “Had I been a civilian, I would not have had to overcome that question.” Uribe — who participated in the recent National Veterans Small Business Engagement conference — has advice for veterans in such situations: Remain professional and don’t feel obliged to answer.
Indeed, interviews can be fraught with odd questions. Nick Lopez, 32, served in the U.S. Army for 14 years. He was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. He later got a Bachelor’s Degree in computer science from DeVry University. But on his return home not everyone thanked him for his service. “I sometimes felt that people were afraid of hiring someone from the military,” Lopez, a Bronx native, says. During one interview with a cable company, he says, the interviewers were impressed with him, “but they kept asking weird questions like, ‘Have you ever seen action overseas?’ I knew then that it was a no-go.’” He suspects why the interview soured: “Some veterans suffer from PTSD and some employers think they have a problem adjusting to civilian life,” he says.
Lopez says he never knows how people are going to react. “You should never ask questions like, ‘Did you ever kill anybody?’” Lopez did suffer from mild PTSD after a rocket attack during his service. His symptoms included shortness of breath when he was in large groups. “I couldn’t be in a movie theater because it was too dark and I couldn’t see the exits,” he says. With treatment, he got better and he now works as a quality assurance engineer for Sharp Decisions, a technology services company with 400 employees that’s hired 50 veterans. He currently works on a project with EmblemHealth, a New York health maintenance and health insurance firm.
8. Gulf War vets have higher rates of unemployment
The unemployment rate for those who served on active duty in the U.S. Armed forces since September 2001 and discharged before 2014 — a 2.8 million-strong “Gulf War II” vets — had a 9% unemployment rate last year (versus 9.9% in 2012) compared with a national average last year of 7.3%, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data (pdf). It was better for all veterans: 6.6% (versus 7% in 2012), and has presumably fallen since then along with the overall average (the national unemployment rate is now 5.8%). Among the 722,000 unemployed veterans in 2013, 60% were age 45 and over and 35% were age 25 to 44.
In recent years, many companies have pledged to make an effort to hire veterans as part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s “Hiring Our Heroes” program, which aims to have 500,000 commitments by next year. Last month, the program confirmed that it will exceed that goal by 85,000 jobs. Nearly 204,000 veterans have started careers in franchising between 2011 and 2013, according to the International Franchise Association. Big-box retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) pledged to hire 100,000 veterans by 2018 and Amazon Inc. (AMZN) hired 1,900 veterans last year.
The VA says it’s provided more than $47 billion to send nearly 1.3 million veterans and dependents to school under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. There are also military and academic support networks for the 250,000 veterans who transition to the civilian life annually. The University of Phoenix “Military Skills Calculator” takes the military occupational specialty (MOS) code and suggests a list of occupations. The Department of Labor’s “Transitional Assistance Program” provides workshops on job hunting, resume and cover letter writing, and interviewing techniques.The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University has “internship-to-employment programs” and online seminars in association with Google Inc. (GOOG)
9. Lower your expectations after military service
Even after a long, decorated career, many vets find it hard to find jobs that match their skills and education. Less than one-third (29%) of former military personnel say they are using their military skills in the civilian workplace and 61% say their jobs are below their skill sets, according to a survey of 1,000 veterans conducted in October by Harris Poll on behalf of the University of Phoenix. As this 2013 White House report (pdf) points out, many veterans have difficulty transferring their military skills to civilian life due to complex licensing requirements.
“We don’t have a lot of call for military men in corporate America,” says Garland Williams, 55, vice. president of military relations at the University of Phoenix; he moved to civilian life five years ago after 28 years in the army. He says it’s difficult to find employment with similar levels of responsibility. At 25 years of age, he led a company of 165 soldiers and at 48 he was commander of a garrison with 23,000 soldiers. He has a Ph.D. in international relations from Duke University, and has taught at West Point. Even with that background, he feels “lucky” that his résumé was found on the jobs forum Civilianjobs.com.
Many people leave the military without the same network as those who attended college, and may not know how to showcase their personality or skills in interviews. When Ernie Lombardi, 57, left the military three decades ago, he drove a Coca-Cola delivery truck. He went through more than one layoff, two recessions, sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door and lived out of his car for a few months in the 1990s. “I took any job I could get my hands on,” he says. But he says he got his “personal power” back. “I stepped up,” Lombardi says. “I had trained men. I was responsible for getting in and out of combat situations alive.” He went to college and became a middle school teacher and, in 2012, became a senior event planner at Hiring Our Heroes, helping other vets find jobs.
10. Public esteem for the military has fallen
Most Americans hold the U.S. military in high esteem, but the number of those who do has declined in recent years. Some 78% of American adults say members of the armed services contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being, according to a 2013 survey of 4,000 adults by Pew Research’s “Religion and Public Life Project.” That’s down from 84% four years ago, the last time it asked the question. That said, the military still tops the list of 10 occupational groups, followed closely by teachers (72%), medical doctors (66%), scientists (65%) and engineers (63%), all of which saw their support decline since 2009.
Republicans were more likely to hold the military in public esteem than Democrats (86% versus 75%) and, in a separate study released earlier this year, more Republicans than Democrats regard military service as a top asset for presidential candidates (58% versus 31%). But other than that, most groups seem to hold the military with similar levels of regard: Men and women (76% versus 80%), people ages 18 to 49 and those 50 years and older (77% versus 81%), white versus African-American and Hispanic (81% versus 72%) and college graduates and those with high school diplomas or less education (76% versus 78%).
Uribe, the U.S. Marine captain, says there are still many common public misconceptions about those who serve in the military, particularly in relation to people who suffer from PTSD. “Some are hesitant to self-identify as veterans because of the negative perceptions,” he says. Others are even hesitant about putting their military experience on their résumé and were told by career counselors not put down their military service, he adds. “For anyone who has any misconceptions about the capabilities of military veterans, there’s plenty of examples of how successful they can be.” He cites Republican senator John McCain, businessman Peter Holt, owner of the San Antonio Spurs NBA team, and Bob Parsons, founder of web-hosting company GoDaddy, as three veterans who rose to the top of their professions. “They just don’t give up,” he adds, “that’s what makes them successful at what they do.”
The change in Pew’s public opinion poll may not be such a bad thing. “There is greater awareness that the military is neither an institution that we should be worshiping or vilifying,” says Brooks, the Georgetown law professor. She says politicians and the media often take extreme views on the role of military in society, and tend to use highly verbose or very inflammatory language. “They’re either perceived as brave and self-sacrificing heroes or brutalized and as overly macho. Neither is true. Members of the military are like any collection of people. They’re a lot more like the rest of America than we think.”