A recent conversation with another Vietnam veteran made me realize that veterans, as a proportion of the U.S population, is rapidly diminishing. In 2016, 7 percent of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18 percent in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Expressed differently, almost half of the Americans 75 or older are veterans; only 3.48 percent of those between 35 and 44 are. We are close to becoming a dying breed.
Our numbers began to decline with the end of the military draft in 1973, coincident with the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Vietnam. All of us of military age before that were, with few exceptions, subject to being called. Many, like me, enlisted voluntarily. I can’t think of a single man of my generation who isn’t a veteran. We all did military service. Although I know a fair number of men and women currently serving in the military—I spend a fair amount of time with armed service members—I can’t think of a single non-military man or woman I know in their twenties and thirties who is a veteran.
The implications of the decline of the veteran population are urgent. My experience in the army, especially basic training and combat preparations, changed me from a boy to a man. I learned what I was capable of; the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological strength I had; the wells of courage I could draw on; and the pride I could justifiably take in defending my country.
I find myself in sympathy with those who call for restoration of the draft. I think we owe it to our young people to help them become all they can be. I believe that all of them can benefit from some kind of service—if not in the military then as members of the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps or other organizations whose mission is to help others.
I learned as a young man—a boy, really—that service to others is the finest service possible. And that by serving others, I transform myself.