The Slander of 'the Broken Veteran'

U.S. Army World War II veteran Frederick Carrier waves a flag during the Veterans Day parade in New York on November 11, 2014. Mike Segar/Reuters

Successful Dallas financial advisor B.G. Burkett remembers how flummoxed he was by the media's frequent portrayals of Vietnam-era veterans as "losers, bums, drug addicts, drunks, derelicts—societal offal…with the potential to go berserk at any moment." His large circle of veteran acquaintances looked and acted nothing like these descriptions, holding down long-term jobs, with houses and children and voting records.

Burkett's subsequent quest to understand the Vietnam veteran dichotomy, in order to restore the good name of well-deserving Vietnam veterans while directing help toward those truly in need, resulted in Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History. But while the book received the William E. Colby Military Writers' Award and helped to fuel the Stolen Valor Acts of 2005 and 2013, public perception still hovers around the belief that contemporary war veterans are a population that requires services to function in civil society, rather than a population that has valuable services to offer back.

Civic life of veterans
The civic life of veterans: Stats on social connectedness, political action and group participation Got Your 6

Handfuls of veteran-initiated groups and associations have formed in recent years to reverse this public image of "the broken veteran." With the endeavor in mind of establishing the valuable social capital veterans represent, and helping to channel that to increase the civic health of communities, the National Conference on Citizenship in partnership with Got Your 6 and others initiated the first-ever sociological examination of civic health as it relates to veterans. This Thursday, they published the good news: empirical data unmistakably shore up such organizations' long-held belief that veterans of military service strengthen communities by volunteering, voting, engaging in local governments, helping neighbors and participating in community organizations. And, the study shows, they do so at higher rates than their non-veteran counterparts.

Using data pulled from the 2012 and 2013 Census Current Population Survey and analyzed by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, the Veteran Civic Health Index shows that 72 percent of veterans under 50 registered to vote in the 2012 election, with 61 percent actually voting, compared to 67 percent of non-veterans under 50 registering to vote, and nearly 56 percent voting on Election Day.

The index also shows that veterans volunteer an average of four full workweeks—160 hours annually—while non-veteran volunteers serve around 121 hours, 25 percent less. Veterans are more likely than non-veterans to attend community meetings, fix problems in the neighborhood and fill leadership roles in community organizations. This might be a fair explanation for why veterans, compared to non-veterans, are also more trusting of their neighbors, and willing to talk with and do favors for them.

Educational attainment is often one of the strongest predictors of many forms of civic engagement. For veterans, data show that their military service often acts in a similar capacity to a college education in terms of its civic outcomes. Both provide structured environments that enable a young person to develop a strong identity: Veterans with a high school education have civic engagement profiles comparable to non-veterans with a college education.

Similarly, veterans with some college education are civically engaged like non-veterans with four-year college degrees. Also in the area of education—while four-year college completion rates are higher among non-veterans (33.2 percent), veterans participating in the GI Bill program are completing degree programs at a rate (48 percent) similar to traditional beginning postsecondary students in the general population cohort.

Currently, there are around 21.3 million veterans in the United States, comprising 9 percent of the adult population. Every year, around 250,000 veterans return to communities across the country, willing and eager not just to reintegrate into civilian society, but, as the Veteran Civic Health Index shows, to strengthen it.

Rebecca Burgess manages the American Enterprise Institute Program on American Citizenship. This article first appeared on the AEI site.