They were young when they joined the military, some as young as 17 years old. After serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere in between, they are back home, out of uniform and living in a country witnessing one of the most important presidential elections in its history.
There's no shortage of challenges facing the United States when it comes to foreign policy, military might and the continuing care of the nation's veterans. Recent polls show many veterans and members of the military support Republican nominee Donald Trump.
While historically, troops and vets tend to lean Republican, there's a danger in lumping them all into one voting bloc. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan created a new generation of young veterans, all different and diverse.
At least 2 million veterans are under the age of 34. Many of them tuned in to Wednesday's Commander-in-Chief Forum on NBC, hosted by Matt Lauer and sponsored by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, looking for answers from Trump and Hillary Clinton on how they will lead the military and handle national security issues at home and across the globe.
They know full well the challenges a president faces when it comes to sending troops to war, and the consequences of U.S. foreign policy decisions.
Here's what they had to say to Mic about the candidates' performances in last night's forum.
"The people you elect are those who decided when and where I fight."
Shannon Gretz is a 32-year-old military consultant from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She currently serves in the North Carolina National Guard and deployed to Mosul in 2009.
"At times it seems that those who have not served and are my age or younger, and older as well, are in a bubble. They have their polished news bites off CNN or Fox News ready for the cocktail parties," she said. "In this instant gratification and increasingly narcissistic society, it's no wonder why most can't name the countries in Africa nor speak on the atrocities throughout the world."
"As a veteran, the vast majority of us have seen those atrocities and understand how important it is to elect local and national politicians in an ever globalizing world that will continue to make opportunities for every citizen of this country while working with our allies to combat global issues," Gretz added.
Gretz said she felt the forum was "hard on Hillary."
"Her answers were solid, measured, and informed," she said. "Trump as always lacks the knowledge to accurately answer a question. "As a female officer, the fact he thinks 'setting up a military court' (we have our own court system) is the solution to sexual assault while standing by his tweet that stated 'what did these geniuses expect putting men and woman together,' is utterly disturbing. He lacks all characteristic that one needs to be leader."
Gretz also criticized Trump's plan to bolster the military's budget. "The last thing our military needs is more money, we need better management of said money and cut-out sweetheart contracts." She also wants more voters, especially young voters, to participate in this election.
"I remember coming home from Iraq, a woman stopped me in a store while I was in uniform and asked me how it felt to serve a in a war that wasn't for America. I asked if she voted in her local elections, she said yes. I asked if she voted in her national elections, she again replied yes. I then stated 'I did fight for you and this country. The people you elect are those who decided when and where I fight. I fight for you and that right as well as many other rights,'" she said.
"That's what I would want to press upon the voters of my generation. Veterans are a special class of voter, we embody what America is all genders, all races, all religions, we raise our hands and fight the wars those elected decide to send us to and proudly do so, it's an honor. Pay attention to who you elect at every level."
"I wish that they'd do less talking about vets and actually do something for vets."
Philip Barker, 31, from Londonderry, New Hampshire, served in the Marine Corps from 2003 to 2007. He deployed to Iraq in 2004 and fought in Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury, often referred to as the Second Battle of Fallujah. His unit also responded to Hurricane Katrina aboard the USS Iwo Jima in 2005.
"To be honest, I wish that they'd do less talking about vets and actually do something for vets," he said after watching last night's forum. "Veterans have become so 'photo-op' recently that, for me, it's at a point where actions would speak louder than words."
Barker said he wasn't particularly impressed with either Trump or Clinton.
The Democratic nominee, he said, "reinforced the 'untouchable' vibe" with her answers on a series of questions about her handling of classified material as secretary of state.
But Barker also faulted Trump for his "painfully vague" answers, particularly on military sexual assault.
"His hubris is another point of contention for me. I'm all for exuding confidence, but Trump's attitude borders on egotistical," Barker added. "Saying he knew more than the generals about ISIS almost caused my eyes to roll out of my head, and I'll bet money that anyone who has ever picked up a rifle and fought a counterinsurgency just shook their head."
Barker also said he was upset the event did not include third-party candidates. He intends to vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, and he wishes more voters would consider third-party candidates.
"A stunning number of people insist 'I'm wasting my vote' and that 'If you aren't voting for Trump, you're voting for Hillary' or vice versa. No, I'm not. I'm voting on my principles. If either candidate gets into office, they're just going to hasten the rate at which we're circling the drain, except they're going to do so in their own unique way," he said.
"What's important is the willingness to take veterans issues seriously."
J.P. Lawrence is a 26-year-old sergeant in the U.S. National Guard. His family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines. He joined the military at 17 and deployed to Iraq in 2009. He found Wednesday's forum, in which each candidate spoke for about 20 minutes, lacking in depth.
"I felt there wasn't enough challenging of each candidate's positions." Lawrence said he feels that Trump's positions on veterans issues are "simply not as robust as Hillary Clinton's positions."
"I think Hillary Clinton's position of using the successful homeless vet programs in certain cities as models nationwide is a great idea," he said. "But instead: emails," he added, lamenting the focus on her email practices as secretary of state.
Lawrence said he's concerned that both candidates give lip service to veterans on the campaign trail.
"I think what's important is the willingness to take veterans issues seriously and not just as rah-rah rally items. That's a concern I have with both candidates. Whether once the cameras are off, if they'll continue doing the grunt work of figuring out what are very complex issues," he said.
"I'm different than my generation."
Sheldon Hirschurber, 31, an Army vet who lives in Fort Myers, Florida, and served two combat tours in Afghanistan, hoped to vote for Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who dropped his White House bid after faltering in the GOP primaries.
"He is, to me, the voice of reason," Hirschuber said of Paul.
Hirschuber is not a fan of Hillary Clinton, calling her "everything I hate in this world.
"She doesn't have honor, she's in it for herself," he said, adding that while Trump wasn't his first choice, he will likely vote for him.
"I like that he doesn't want to broadcast his plan [to defeat ISIS]," Hirschuber said. "I've always thought that was stupidity. He also said he believes that "under Hillary our military minds would be ignored over political correctness and daily operation rules."
Watching the forum, Hirschuber said he was reminded about the divide between the military and the civilian population in the United States, especially among millennials.
"I'm different than my generation. I feel like most of my generation that didn't serve, that's really the line, they don't have a respect of the country. They have no comprehension of the sacrifice and the willingness to serve, because they've never been put through that," he said. "They don't have to do that, because other people do, so there's some level of respect that should be given."
"The 2016 election cycle is a dog-shit sandwich. Well, I refuse to take a bite."
Brandon Caro, 34, was Navy corpsman assigned to an Army unit in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007. As a resident of Texas, he says he feels like his vote doesn't count and the person he wants to see in the White House is no longer in the race: Former Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.
"He volunteered to go to Vietnam," Caro said, calling the former Navy secretary "the most qualified person to be president of the United States and commander-in-chief."
Caro said he had a hard time listening to Clinton.
"She has been dishonest so many times," he said. "Trump is much more fun to watch. Definitely not commander-in-chief material, but highly entertaining."
While he likes Trump's outsider status, Caro noted that the billionaire has "absolutely no experience" in government.
"The 2016 election cycle is a dog-shit sandwich," he said. "Well, I refuse to take a bite."
"You sign up for whatever your reasons are and then you put your trust in your leaders."
Joanne Guerra, 28, is a student at John Jay College in New York City. She did two tours in Afghanistan with the Army.
"I think Hillary Clinton did better. This event solidified who I am definitely not voting for, which is Trump. Faced with important questions from real vets — he failed," she said. "I wish Trump had been asked follow-up questions. Or just blatantly asked to answer the question. He just runs off on tangents and never answers anything."
Guerra said being a college student and a combat veteran, she often finds herself feeling separate from her peers.
"There's a disconnect with my civilian millennial peers because they have a tendency to hide behind their keyboards. I call them Facebook fighters. They sit behind their keyboards, share posts and think this is a big deal," she said. "It's one thing when you're spreading awareness, but at some point you have to do something when it concerns injustice. There's a difference between being there and reading about it."