The U.S. military is no monolith. Today’s veteran was yesterday’s soldier, which means that one of the first steps toward properly understanding our veterans is gaining an awareness of who and what they were as soldiers. I use “soldier” here as a catch-all general term; properly speaking, only those who serve in the U.S. Army are soldiers. Because the Army is the largest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, many simply use the term “soldier” as a synecdoche, eliding its more prominent visibility and more historically vibrant connotations with the anodyne “service member” term of contemporary usage. 

Today’s military has its origins in the Continental Army of George Washington’s—and the War of Independence—days. But today’s military is a professionalized, all-volunteer military, meaning that all who join do so freely and because they understand it to be a form of employment while also being a form of public service to their nation. This change was instantiated in 1973. While on the presidential campaign trail in 1967, Richard Nixon had made the promise to abolish conscription if elected president, influenced in part by the domestic opposition to the Vietnam War and the widespread perception of the injustice of the deferment system attached to the Vietnam War era draft. Conscription had helped America field nearly all its wartime fighting forces, but compelled military service had always provoked some backlash. After the Gates Commission studied the issue, Nixon believed he could make the switch without harming national security, and in fact, that this would improve the quality of America’s fighting forces. This upcoming year, the All-Volunteer Force will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Proponents call it “one of America’s great success stories.”

The first great difference then in one’s veteran status has to do with this question—were you drafted or did you volunteer? The second has to do with whether you served during wartime or in a peacetime military, and whether or how many times you might have been deployed abroad. Using Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) estimates, Pew Research Council says that about 78% of veterans are wartime veterans versus about 22% who are peacetime veterans. The third and fourth differences have to do with whether you served primarily on Active Duty, or in the Reserve or National Guard components, and what branch of the military you did your service in. 

“Active Duty” is fairly straightforward—these are military full-time, live on or near a military base, and can be deployed at any time. Each service branch has a Reserve component that is under command of their respective military branch, but those who serve in them are typically not full-time and also have a civilian job. The National Guard consists of the Army National Guard and the Air Force’s Air National Guard, organized and controlled on a state-by-state basis, although they are federally funded—and therefore, can become federalized and deployed. Like Reserve forces, National Guard forces typically serve part-time, although, during the past twenty years of war, both have been heavily utilized overseas. This brief primer by the VA breaks down how the overarching purpose of the Active, Reserve, or National Guard component may determine the type of role and tasks that a service member within them will do. 

Each of the six service branches of the U.S. military functions as an individual organization with unique purposes, requirements, and rules, even though they share common goals. The Army is the oldest and largest branch, while the Navy is of no less historical significance. The Air Force, Marine Corps, Space Force, and Coast Guard round out the U.S. military (although since 2003, the Coast Guard has operated under the Department of Homeland Security). 

Within each of these branches, there’s this fifth differentiator: one is either a commissioned officer or enlisted, with the ranks of the latter far outweighing the numbers of the former. Following a system inherited from the British, this two-tiered system (generally speaking) separates those who perform specific job functions and have the knowledge, skills, and abilities to ensure the success of their unit’s missions—those enlisted to have a “specialty”, and those who manage the enlisted personnel—those who as leaders plan missions, provide orders, problem-solve, and assign tasks. Enlisted personnel sign a contract between themselves and the military for a designated portion of time, that they can theoretically renew; officers typically already must have a four-year degree or equivalent and are “commissioned”; both take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, but where enlisted swear to obey their officers and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, officers swear to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of [their] office.”

Equally, if not indeed more important for the veteran’s transition to civilianhood than all of these separate qualifications is the specific thing they did while in the service. This is called their “military occupational specialty” (MOS)—and there currently exist more than 10,000 different of these “jobs” across the different branches of the military. Importantly, even while the public overwhelmingly assumes that all those in the military see combat, in fact, less than 10% of military jobs are even designated as combat-affiliated MOS’s in the contemporary military. While every MOS has a military function, not every occupation is military-specific. MOS designations can include civilian workplace equivalents, such as administration, engineering, construction, information technology, communications, logistics, maintenance, healthcare, or even music, alongside the more traditional military ones, such as infantryman, fire support specialist, and cannon crew member. 

From a political, constitutional, and human rights perspective, all veterans are of course all created equal. But in terms of what challenges, opportunities, benefits, and support services they will face or need as veterans, each of these differentiators matter immensely. Because there is not one uniform experience of military service, one of the most consistent challenges for veterans’ advocates is being able to identify, from the myriad details of millions of soldiers’ individual experiences, what comes to the fore as common and consistent challenges for all, and formulating workable solutions at scale for them.