Remember Senator John Kerry’s pronouncement in 2006 that “if you study hard and do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”
I know that Senator Kerry intended it to be a joke, but humor (at least good humor) is based on either fact or a person’s perception of fact. Otherwise, it’s just not funny. Senator Kerry was trying to play to the commonly-held idea that people volunteer for the military because they’re from low-income, disadvantaged homes, they cannot find another job, or they’re too dumb to make it anywhere else.
Nothing can be further from the truth! The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis released a report on August 21, 2008 that took a look at the backgrounds of those who volunteered to serve in the military to see if there is any basis for the belief that military service disproportionately attracts minorities, those without an education, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds. They looked at four demographic characteristics of new Army recruits and new Army officers who entered the service in 2006 and 2007: household income, education level, racial and ethnic background, and national origin. The authors, Sheanea J. Watkins, Ph.D., and James Sherk concluded that
“The facts do not support the belief that many American soldiers volunteer because society offers them few other opportunities. The average enlisted person or officer could have had lucrative career opportunities in the private sector. Those who argue that American soldiers risk their lives because they have no other opportunities belittle the personal sacrifices of those who serve out of love for their country.”
In fact, enlisted recruits in 2006 and 2007 came primarily from middle-class and upper middle-class families (those families earning more than $40K a year). The study showed 49.3% of recruits in 2006 and 2007 came from in from these higher-income families. Only 10.6% of the 2006 recruits and 10.7% of the 2007 recruits came from households that earned less than $33K per year, although 18 to 24-year-olds from households with that income level represent 20% of the nation’s population.
Newly-minted officers show the same thing. The average officer graduating from ROTC comes from a neighborhood with a median household income of $64,083, well above the national median income of $50,428. The median income for the average West Point officer is even higher at $75,367. Only 7.8 of the ROTC graduates, and only 3.1% of West Point graduates, come from households making less than $40K.
A study of education levels for officer and enlisted volunteers shows that our military is more educated that the general population. Only 1.4% of enlisted recruits in 2007 do not have a high school diploma or a GED; compared to 20.8% of men aged 18 to 24 in the general population. The difference in educational levels between the officer accessions and the general population is even more striking, because ROTC and West Point graduates all have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. According to the study, 94.9% of all officer corps accessions have a 4-year degree, compared to 25.0% of 22 to 27-year-olds in the general population.
The statistics for race, ethnic background and ethnic origin demonstrate that the racial composition of the military is similar to that found in the civilian community, although both whites and blacks and American Indians are slightly overrepresented in the enlisted force while Hispanics, Asians and Pacific Islanders are underrepresented. For officers graduating from ROTC, the percentages are proportional to the general population, with blacks being slightly overrepresented. White and Asian demographic groups are overrepresented for West Point graduates, when compared against the civilian population.
All these statistics clearly demonstrated to the study’s authors that “The popular impression that many soldiers join the military because they lack better opportunities is wrong.” I agree! America’s fighting force consists of diverse and highly educated volunteers, whose background offered them many different career opportunities. These volunteers, instead, chose to serve, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Now, if we could just attract more recruits or officers who plan a political career . . . maybe those in Congress would actually understand the military. Or maybe not.
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