There is a widespread perception in the U.S. that enlisted soldiers are poor, uneducated and underprivileged, that they choose to enlist and to serve because they have few other options, and that they risk their lives because they have very little to lose. In reality, however, data shows that American soldiers are relatively wealthy, well-educated, and do not choose to serve as any kind of a last resort.
After Vietnam, the U.S. suddenly possessed a military that was unnecessarily large, expensive, and made up of many who had been drafted. The American government acted swiftly to correct this, discharging a large number of new recruits and conscripted soldiers and switching to an all-volunteer army. There were concerns that an all-volunteer army would be disproportionately comprised of minorities, poor people, and others from relatively unfortunate circumstances.
Over 40 years later, these concerns persist. They have manifested into a false perception that the military is indeed made up mostly of the less fortunate, that its recruiters prey upon the poor or the uneducated. This perception is only loosely based on reality.
Even a quick glance at data of the military's demographics should be enough to cast doubt on this perception. According to a 2008 study by the Heritage Foundation, enlisted recruits in 2006 and 2007 were actually more likely to come from middle or upper class neighborhoods than from lower class ones. In fact, the numbers showed that Americans who came from a neighborhood where the median household income was lower than $40,000 were underrepresented among military recruits during those two years, while those from neighborhoods where the median household income was above $40,000 were overrepresented. There data showed that representation among said recruits increased as neighborhood median household income increased.
The conclusion is simple but surprising: The wealthier the average household is in your neighborhood, the more likely you are to have joined the U.S. military in 2006 and 2007. Considering the sample size, this is likely to be true today, too.
Education is a trickier matter to assess, but the idea that the majority of soldiers are completely uneducated can be easily refuted. According to a 2011 report, 93% of soldiers possess a high school degree and/or some college experience, which means that a soldier is even more likely than the average civilian to possess such a degree. Yet while 82.5% of officers in the military have a bachelor’s degree or higher, that number for enlisted members is only 5.6%. This is due in part to the fact that many young men and women serve in the military as a means of paying for college later in life. But it must be said that these young Americans (defined as 25 years old or younger) make up less than half of enlisted members.
Finally, the perception of the military as a body heavily made up of minorities is also flawed. In 2011, about 30% of active duty soldiers were minorities. Coupled with the 11% of members who identified as Hispanic — Hispanics are not labeled “minorities” by the military, for some reason — it seems that approximately 40% of the U.S. military identifies as non-white, meaning that about 60% of the military is white.
While this is certainly below the percentage of whites in the national population (the most recent census numbers put that number at 78%), it is not the case that the military is made up mostly of minorities. Furthermore, the Heritage Foundation study found that in 2006 and 2007, the percentage of white new enlisted male recruits aged 18 to 24 was actually higher than the percentage of white 18 to 24-year-old men in the population as a whole. Perhaps, then, the race problems in the military are being corrected, at least to a small degree.
The most important takeaway from these numbers is what they say about Americans in general. Many who choose to join the military do not necessarily do so because they are out of options, or because they have nothing to lose. Something more, and something bigger, is at work.
The fact that so many privileged and educated Americans choose to serve says that the importance of camaraderie and brotherhood sometimes outweighs the financial loss or the risks of war. It says that there are things out there greater than sitting in a classroom or making a lot of money. It says that for many of our men and women in uniform — poor or wealthy, black, white, or Hispanic — the greatest currency to possess in their lives is honor and respect. And it says that patriotism is alive and well in this country.
What I believe is that collectively, they are men and women who represent something greater than what we perceive.