To celebrate military veterans and acknowledge exactly what they do and have sacrificed in service to their fellow Americans and their nation, we first ought to have as clear an idea as possible about who veterans are, demographically speaking. (The “who” and the “what” of veterans or “veteranness”—sociologically, psychologically, ontologically, and anthropologically speaking—is a different, more involved matter, and I’ll essay some formulations about that in separate posts.) 

Naturally, given how frequently our politicians, our media, and our cinema (and cheered on by some historical evidence and our patriotic pride) portray our American military as “the best” and most cutting-edge in the world, Americans would be forgiven for assuming that between the vast government agencies of the Department of Defense (DoD), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Department of Labor, the IRS, and the Census Bureau, the federal government would know a ginormous amount of information about its military veterans, starting with exactly how many U.S. veterans there are today. 

It doesn’t. Not really. Or at least, not that it can figure out with much coherency.

For instance, the U.S. Census Bureau this October released an infographic and data saying that there were 16.5 million military veterans in the United States in 2021, 1.7 million of whom are female veterans. It further broke this statistic down by race and age, period (what’s frequently referred to as a “cohort”) of service, education level, employment status and income level, and service-connected disability rating status.

In this set of numbers, there remain only 162,401 World War II veterans alive today out of the over 16 million who served in that war, the “Greatest Generation” veterans that have done so much to color how we think about who and what veterans are. Meanwhile, the Census Bureau says there are 4,062,031 veterans who have served on or after September 2001, who we call Post-9/11 veterans. This puts the percentage of veterans ages 75 and older in 2021 at 24.4%, while only 8.2% of veterans were younger than age 35. 

Only one year ago, for Veterans Day 2021, the U.S. Census Bureau said that there were 18.2 million veterans. While we do know that the veteran population is declining, and has declined by one-third nationally and at least by 25% at the state level between 2000 and 2018 alone, that apparent 8.3% decrease in the veteran population in one year is even more of a head-scratcher when compared to the numbers of veterans reported by the VA’s National Center for Veteran Analysis and Statistics this summer: 19.4 million (in 2020), with a projected decrease annually of 1.6% in the veteran population over the next thirty years. In submitting the VA’s 2023 budget submission, Secretary McDonough justified the VA’s $301.4 billion dollar request against the number of 19.2 million living veterans. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Commerce also says there were 18.2 million veterans in 2021. 

I’ll spare you the mental fog of the different numbers cited across various expense reports, released from within the VA’s own different departments—I can no longer keep track of them. But here is some insight into why we get the discrepancies in the veteran population numbers.

First, there has not been a full accounting of veterans since the 2000 census; no census since has had a question about veteran status. The VA itself is operating off of a statistical model developed by the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, the latest version being the Veterans Populations Projection Model 2020 (VetPop 2020). There have been ten such models, and for years well past 2016, VetPop 2016 was what was used. But it is frequently at odds with other data sources on veteran population figures, such as the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (as highlighted above)—sometimes by as much as 70% at the regional level. The differences matter, because it is VetPop that “is used for strategic, policy planning, and budgeting within VA and by external organizations such as other federal agencies, Congress, state governments and other organizations.” Furthermore, even using the very same model, states, counties, and the federal government are frequently arriving at different outcomes in terms of veteran numbers, as I discovered a few years ago in the course of researching an American Enterprise report, “Mapping Veterans: Not Who You Think, Not Where You Think.”

No wonder even RAND has castigated the VA for having an extraordinarily complex, decidedly not transparent budget process. RAND has explicitly called it out both for “concerns about the data used for budget planning” as well as for how VA “develops its budget from older data, and…[the] problems with the assumptions used in this process.”

In the American system, the VA is not a subsidiary of our DoD. The DoD does not automatically forward all of its files about its military personnel to the VA once personnel have separated from military service. And veterans are not automatically enrolled in, or are members of, the VA—in fact not even all those who have served in the military even qualify to use the VA’s health or other benefits systems. 

The reason our statistics about veterans are not coherent, across agencies or from year to year, is not simply incompetence, though there is undoubtedly much to be said on that score. But due to how important that raw data is for a broad swath of services and care for veterans, fixing our data about the sheer numbers of veterans seems a good place to start in honoring their service.