When Chief Warrant Officer 5 Ralph Rigby celebrated his retirement from the military at Camp Red Cloud, South Korea in October of 2014, for their part, the U.S. Armed Forces were not just marking his 41 years of continuous service—they, and America, were marking the true end of an era. Rigby was the last continuously serving draftee in the U.S. military. Drafted in 1972, he had elected to stay in when President Richard Nixon ordered all draftees released from the army. The career and opportunity to better himself and his nation that resulted from being drafted, Rigby later said, was like he’d won the lottery. He couldn’t believe his luck, in getting to be a United States veteran.

Rigby is a Vietnam War Era veteran. He is also, thoroughly, a Post-9/11 veteran, however much he may not match the image in the public’s mind of the same. Out of the over four million Post-9/11 veterans that populate American society today, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that around 58,041 are veterans who served both during the Vietnam War Era and in the Post 9/11 era. A further 1.5 million Post-9/11 veterans are also estimated to be Gulf War Era veterans, while there are approximately 3.5 million Post-9/11 era only veterans. 

Understanding how every cohort or general era of veterans is in fact often made up of subgroups of veterans who have served across eras, is vital to understanding which services and benefits, and at what scale, particular cohorts of veterans are in need of. It also illustrates how today’s veterans were yesterday’s soldiers, and how their evolution matches the evolution of the U.S. Armed Forces across time.

About one in five veterans currently living served after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, according to the Pew Research Center. In general, Post-9/11 veterans are historically the most diverse cohort of veterans: According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2018, about 17% are women, 15.3% are Black, and 12.1% are Hispanic. About half of Post-9/11 veterans reported enrollment in school after leaving the military, the greater number of whom enrolled full-time, unlike veterans from previous eras. 

But in general educational terms, Post-9/11 veterans are an educated group. The Census Bureau also says that more than 46% have some college education and 32% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. In fiscal year 2020, the Department of Defense paid $4.7 billion dollars to Institutions of Higher Learning (IHLs) for 2,979,623 service members and beneficiaries to use the Post 9/11 GI Bill, Yellow Ribbon, or Tuition Assistance benefits. This amount accounts for only about half of all individuals who are eligible to use the GI Bill’s generous benefits. 

In theory, what this means is that the number of GI-Bill connected students using federal tuition dollars could be twice the numbers of 2020. And while research remains inconclusive about why this gap between eligibility and use of the GI Bill exists, it remains true that many potential student veterans and military-connected students face barriers to higher education due to a lack of familiarity with IHLs, as well as a lack of outreach from them.

In terms of employment, between 2014-2018, about 80% of Post-9/11 veterans were employed compared with only 75% of nonveterans. Among the employed, Post-9/11 veterans were also more likely than nonveterans to work year-round (50 to 52 weeks a year) and full-time (35 hours or more a week). About 81% of Post-9/11 veterans and 71% of nonveterans had year-round, full-time jobs. Additionally, Post-9/11 veterans worked longer hours than nonveterans; were more likely to work for federal, state, or local governments (32% of Post-9/11 male veterans worked in such jobs compared to only 10% of male nonveterans); in general earned more than nonveterans ($46,000 a year compared to about $35,000 for nonveterans); and were overrepresented in such occupation groups involving protective service occupations, such as policy officer, firefighter, and other first responder roles. 

However, a significant share of Post-9/11 veterans who worked in a civilian job after leaving the military says they believe, based on their experience, skills, and training, that they were overqualified for their first post-military job, with over half of them staying in their first job for more than a year, a bit unhappily. 

Nevertheless, again according to Pew, a majority of all Post-9/11 veterans believe that their military service was useful in giving them the skills and training they needed for a job outside the military, but with this caveat: Those who served as commissioned officers are significantly more likely than noncommissioned officers or enlisted personnel to say that their military training was good preparation for a civilian job. 

It’s the details and nuanced characteristics such as this that enable us to understand the true dynamics of the various veteran cohorts, which in turn allows us to serve them better and according to their actual needs.