The proposed reductions in the Pentagon’s budget have a lot of people worried that smaller will mean weaker. The defense and aerospace industry, which had another year of record profits in 2011, is spending a lot of effort trying to convince Congress that anticipated drawdowns are bad for national security and for the bottom line. Americans, it turns out, know better. A recent nonpartisan survey shows that the public supports cuts overwhelmingly; this is true across the board, regardless of whether a respondent was in a red or blue state or in a district with large defense spending.
This shift in how we plan to fight needs to extend to how we plan to honor those who have already served. All the focus on the challenges facing returning veterans — unemployment, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, health issues, and reintegration for a population that has deployed multiple times in the last decade — is important, but those challenges are qualitative, not quantitative. There is another basic fact — a statistical certainty — that should change the way we administer to the needs of veterans.
There just won’t be as many of them.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there are about 22.9 million Americans who have served in wars as far back as World War II. The end of conscription and the natural deaths of Vietnam-era troops will send that number — assuming we still have an all-volunteer military and projections on the size of the military hold — plummeting to about 14 million by 2036, with large declines in subsequent years.
The reduction is not meant to suggest that time alone will cure the deficiencies in services available to veterans — deficiencies often related to the delayed and onerous claims process run by the federal government. What it does suggest is that a persistent mythology about veterans — “there are so many of them” — may mask a more difficult challenge: a smaller population with exceptionally complex problems.
Veterans issues fall into three broad categories: benefits for service, health care, and burial needs. The administration of benefits requires greater investments in technology and personnel; burial planning is personal, yet routine. But in health care access, the question is whether a veteran needs to travel to veterans’ facilites for routine care. Is a geographically dispersed and centralized system really necessary for a population reducing in size so dramatically?
Just as a new world order required the military to consider, through community and stakeholder outreach, installation reductions in the Base Realignment and Closure Commission process, the same is true for veterans facilities. In Massachusetts, for example, there are five veterans’ medical centers: Brockton, Bedford, Northampton, and two in the Boston area. There are six more throughout New England. Political and community interests often make their presence sacrosanct.
But numbers matter. According to federal statistics, there are 323,000 Massachusetts veterans. It will be closer to 190,000 in 2036. At that time, New England will have fewer than 500,000 veterans.
“The younger, wired, and technological savvy veterans will be around a long time and are going to demand a system that works for them,” Coleman Nee, secretary of veterans’ services in Massachusetts, said in a recent interview. “There are conditions that are unique to veterans and should be administered by a system oriented to their needs,” he said. “But there are health issues that happen to everyone.”
It is these kinds of changes that are worth considering as the entire national security apparatus prepares for a major and necessary down-sizing. Discussing a more linear, smaller veterans network does not suggest minimizing the needs of veterans. It means taking the numbers seriously.
This may eventually be a revolution led by the veterans themselves, who are at the mercy of a behemoth system built when every young man served. There may be fewer veterans in the future, but this is a population inclined to think that closing some facilities and easing health care access are far simpler than a counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan.Juliette Kayyem can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on