Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

War and Sacrifice in the Post-9/11 Era

Executive Summary

The report is based on two surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center: one of the nation’s military veterans and one of the general public. A total of 1,853 veterans were surveyed, including 712 who served in the military after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The general public survey was conducted among 2,003 adult respondents. (For a detailed description of the survey methodologies, see Appendix 1.)

Here is a summary of key findings:

The Rewards and Burdens of Military Service

  • Veterans who served on active duty in the post-9/11 era are proud of their service (96%), and most (74%) say their military experience has helped them get ahead in life. The vast majority say their time in the military has helped them mature (93%), taught them how to work with others (90%) and helped to build self-confidence (90%). More than eight-in-ten (82%) say they would advise a young person close to them to join the military.
  • At the same time, however, 44% of post-9/11 veterans say their readjustment to civilian life was difficult. By contrast, just 25% of veterans who served in earlier eras say the same. About half (48%) of all post-9/11 veterans say they have experienced strains in family relations since leaving the military, and 47% say they have had frequent outbursts of anger. One-third (32%) say there have been times where they felt they didn’t care about anything.
  • Nearly four-in-ten (37%) post-9/11 veterans say that, whether or not they were formally diagnosed, they believe they have suffered from post-traumatic stress (PTS). Among veterans who served prior to 9/11, just 16% say the same.
  • These psychological and emotional problems are most prevalent among post-9/11 veterans who were in combat. About half of this group (49%) say they have suffered from PTS. And about half (52%) also say they had emotionally traumatic or distressing experiences while in the military. Of those who had these types of experiences, three-in-four say they are still reliving them in the form of flashbacks or nightmares.
  • Overall, about one-in-six post-9/11 veterans (16%) report they were seriously injured while serving in the military, and most of these injuries were combat-related. And about half (47%) say they know and served with someone who was killed while in the military, not significantly different from the share of pre-9/11 veterans (43%) who say the same. The survey finds that post-9/11 veterans who either experienced or were exposed to casualties are more supportive than other post-9/11 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, they also report having more difficulty re-entering civilian life.

The Military-Civilian Gap

  • Only about one half of one percent of the U.S. population has been on active military duty at any given time during the past decade of sustained warfare. Some 84% of post-9/11 veterans say the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military or their families. The public agrees, though by a less lopsided majority—71%.
  • Some 83% of all adults say that military personnel and their families have had to make a lot of sacrifices since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; 43% say the same about the American people. However, even among those who acknowledge this gap in burden-sharing, only 26% describe it as unfair. Seven-in-ten (70%) consider it “just part of being in the military.”
  • The public makes a sharp distinction in its view of military service members and the wars they have been fighting. More than nine-in-ten express pride in the troops and three-quarters say they thanked someone in the military. But a 45% plurality say neither of the post-9/11 wars has been worth the cost and only a quarter say they are following news of the wars closely. And half of the public say the wars have made little difference in their lives.
  • At a time when the public’s confidence in most key national institutions has sagged, confidence in the military is at or near its highest level in many decades. However, just 58% believe the military operates efficiently. Among veterans of all eras, 66% say the military runs efficiently.

Post-9/11 Veterans and Their Wars

  • Veterans are more supportive than the general public of U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even so, they are ambivalent. Just half of all post-9/11 veterans say that, given the costs and benefits to the U.S., the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting. A smaller share (44%) says the war in Iraq has been worth it. Only one-third (34%) say both wars have been worth fighting, and a nearly identical share (33%) say neither has been worth the costs.
  • About half of post-9/11 veterans (51%) say relying too much on military force creates hatred that leads to more terrorism, while four-in-ten endorse the opposite view: that overwhelming force is the best way to defeat terrorism. The views of the public are nearly identical: 52% say too much force leads to more terrorism, while 38% say using military force is the best approach.
  • About six-in-ten post-9/11 veterans (59%) support the noncombat “nation-building” role the military has taken on in Iraq and Afghanistan. The public and pre-9/11 veterans are less enthused. Just 45% of both groups say they think this is an appropriate role for the military.
  • While nation building gets mixed reviews, large majorities of veterans and the public support the use of unmanned “drone” aircraft for aerial attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Nearly nine-in-ten (86%) veterans of all eras say this is a good thing; 68% of the public agrees.
  • Both the public and veterans oppose bringing back the military draft. More than eight-in-ten post-9/11 veterans and 74% of the public say the U.S. should not return to the draft at this time.

A Profile of Post-9/11 Veterans

  • Politically, post-9/11 veterans are more likely than adults overall to identify with the Republican Party—36% are Republicans, compared with 23% of the general public. Equal shares of these veterans and the public call themselves independents (35%), while 21% of post-9/11 veterans and 34% of the public describe themselves as Democrats.
  • In their religious affiliation, veterans are roughly comparable to the general population. Post-9/11 veterans are mostly young adults, and like younger Americans overall, they are more likely than the general public to say they have no particular religious affiliation (30% vs. 18%).
  • Patriotic sentiment runs high among post-9/11 veterans. Six-in-ten (61%) consider themselves more patriotic than most other people in the country. Just 37% of Americans overall say the same.
  • Post-9/11 veterans are happy with their lives overall, and they express high levels of satisfaction with their family life in particular. On these two measures they do not differ significantly from the public.
  • When it comes to their financial well-being, post-9/11 veterans are somewhat less satisfied than the public overall—only 20% say they are very satisfied with their personal financial situation, compared with 25% of the public. Their dissatisfaction may be linked in part to high unemployment rates (11.5% of post-9/11 veterans were unemployed at the end of 2010).

A Profile of Today’s Active-duty Force


  • The military in the post-9/11 era is older than the force that served a generation ago. While about two-thirds of active-duty military personnel are ages 30 or younger, the average age of enlisted personnel and officers has increased significantly since the draft ended in 1973.
  • The percentage of minorities in the ranks of enlisted personnel and officers has increased significantly since 1990. In 2009, more than one-third of all active-duty personnel were minorities (36.2%), an increase from 25.4% about two decades ago. Women also comprise an increasing share of all active-duty officers and enlisted personnel.
  • Today’s enlisted personnel are better educated than those who served before them. Fewer are high school dropouts and more are college graduates. In 2009, 92.5% of recruits were at least high school graduates, compared with 82.8% of comparably aged civilians.
  • At a time when marriage rates are declining in the broader population, the share of active-duty military personnel who are married has increased dramatically in recent decades. Today, a majority of all enlisted personnel are married (53.1%), up from 40.1% in 1973. Overall, those in the military are significantly more likely to be married than are civilians of a comparable age.

About the Data

This report draws on data collected from multiple sources by the Pew Research Center. Findings on the attitudes and experiences of veterans are based on a Pew Research survey of military veterans that used standard sampling and telephone interviewing techniques and online interviewing with a nationally representative sample of post-9/11 veterans. Attitudes of the public are based on a nationally representative survey of the general population that asked many of the same questions that were posed to veterans. These surveys were supplemented by data from the Department of Defense.

The Veterans Survey (V)

The attitudes of veterans reported in this study are based on a nationally representative sample of 1,853 men and women who served in the military and are no longer on active duty. The sample included 1,134 who were discharged from the military prior to Sept. 11, 2001, and 712 veterans who served after 9/11. (Seven veterans declined to answer when they served.)

The margin of sampling error for results based on the entire sample of veterans is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; the margin of sampling error for the pre-9/11 sample is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points; and the margin of sampling error for those who served after 9/11 is plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.

Veterans were interviewed by telephone or via the internet. A total of 1,639 interviews were conducted over the telephone under the direction of Social Science Research Solutions (SSRS). Respondents had been identified as veterans in earlier surveys conducted by SSRS and the Pew Research Center and were re-contacted for the veterans survey. Of the total sample, 1,307 telephone interviews were conducted on landline telephones and 332 on cell phones. Interviewing for the telephone survey was conducted from July 28 to Sept. 4, 2011. These interviews were supplemented by 214 interviews with veterans who served after 9/11 and are part of random sample panel of households maintained by the research firm Knowledge Networks. These online interviews were collected Aug. 18-31, 2011.

The two data sets were combined and the entire sample weighted by SSRS to match known demographic characteristics of the veterans population as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. In addition, the post-9/11 oversample was weighted back to reflect its correct proportion of the overall veterans population. A detailed explanation of the survey methodologies and weighting strategy employed in this study is in Appendix 1.

The General Population Survey (GP)

Results reported for the general population are based on telephone interviews conducted with a nationally representative sample of 2,003 adults ages 18 or older living in the continental United States. A combination of landline and cellular random digit dial (RDD) samples was used to represent all adults in the continental United States who have access to either a landline or cellular telephone. A total of 1,203 interviews were conducted via landline and 800 on a cell phone. The interviews were conducted in English and Spanish by Princeton Data Source on Sept. 1-15, 2011. The margin of sampling error for the overall sample is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

Demographic Data

The demographic profile of the active-duty military presented in Chapter 6 is primarily based on the latest available data published by the Department of Defense. Data on the characteristics of the Active Duty and Selected Reserve forces came from Demographics 2009: Profile of the Military Community. These data were supplemented by information from Population Representation in the Military Services 2009, also published by the Defense Department. Casualty data and statistics on participation in wars came from the Department of Defense web page Defense Personnel and Procurement Statistics Principal Wars in which the United States Participated-U.S. Military Personnel Serving and Casualties

  1. Figures for active-duty military personnel in this section are based on data published by the Department of Defense.
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