Cover: What Americans Think About Veterans and Military Service

What Americans Think About Veterans and Military Service

Findings from a Nationally Representative Survey

Published Dec 14, 2023

by Meredith Kleykamp, Daniel Schwam, Gilad Wenig

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Research Questions

  1. Do Americans hold positive or negative stereotypes about veterans, and do these views differ among different population subgroups?
  2. Would Americans encourage a young person to join the military?
  3. How do Americans think the U.S. public views the military?
  4. What are the associations between Americans' perceptions of veterans and views about the military?

Fiscal year 2022 was one of the worst U.S. military recruitment years on record, with all services apart from the Space Force failing to meet recruitment goals, and fiscal year 2023 saw similar shortfalls. The U.S. public's overall confidence in the military is likewise declining. Although the public still holds the military generally in high esteem compared with other major institutions, that esteem is wavering, influenced by such factors as the end of the war in Afghanistan, the increased polarization of the public, and heightened politicization of the military.

How do these trends in recruitment and confidence reflect public perceptions of the U.S. military? Do public perceptions of veterans and the U.S. military influence young people's decisions to join the military? RAND researchers examined a selection of findings from 2022 American Life Panel surveys to gather insights into how Americans think about these issues. The researchers found that the public thinks very highly of U.S. veterans, endorsing positive stereotypes about veterans at a high rate and endorsing negative stereotypes at a very low rate. However, a majority of Americans would discourage a young person close to them from enlisting.

Key Findings

  • Public perceptions of veterans are overwhelmingly positive: Approximately 30–80 percent of survey respondents endorsed positive stereotypes, and only 3–20 percent endorsed negative stereotypes of veterans.
  • Perceptions of veterans differ by respondents' age, political party identification, prior military service, family members' service, and race/ethnicity.
  • A majority of Americans (54.4 percent) would discourage a young person close to them from enlisting in the military, but a majority of Americans (61.2 percent) would encourage a young person to join the military via Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) or a service academy (i.e., as an officer). Nearly one-third (31 percent) of those who would discourage enlisting in the military would encourage joining via ROTC or a service academy.
  • Nearly one-quarter of adults believe that most Americans look up to members of the military, and only 4 percent believe that most Americans look down on the military.
  • Holding more-negative veteran stereotypes is associated with a lower probability of encouraging a young person to join the military and with a higher probability of believing that most Americans look down on the military.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was made possible by a generous gift from Daniel J. Epstein through the Epstein Family Foundation. The research was conducted by the RAND Epstein Family Veterans Policy Research Institute within RAND Education and Labor.

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