The House currently has 88 veterans (including two non-voting delegates) and the Senate has 18, a total of 106, according to the Congressional Research Service. That’s just under 20 percent of the 113th Congress, the lowest rate since World War II.
The body that has the ultimate power to send troops into combat has very few military veterans in its ranks. But it wasn’t always that way.
A generation ago, military experience was basically a necessity for members of Congress. The number of veterans in the House peaked in 1977, when almost eight in ten members (347) were veterans. In 1983, over three quarters of the Senate (76 members) had served in the armed forces.
The decline of veterans in Congress grown steeper in the last decade. Thirty-six senators had military experience in 2003, along with 121 House members.
Deaths, retirements, and electoral losses have deprived Congress of all but two of its World War II vets and the number of Vietnam War veterans has sunk dramatically. Nine veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were recently elected to office—including combat vets like Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill). But that’s much fewer than the number of veterans of past wars who have served in Congress.
The lack of veterans in Congress appears to reflect the broader trend in the U.S. Only seven percent of Americans today have served in the military, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s down from 13.7 percent in 1970, during the midst of the Vietnam War. The government discontinued the draft and made the military an all-volunteer service in 1973.
Why should it matter? The country is drawing down two wars and faces serious questions on whether to intervene in Iran and Syria. But only a small fraction of the people who decide to send American troops into harm’s way have been there themselves.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.