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After Draftless Decade of War, Gap Seen Between Military, Civilians

October 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
After a decade of America at war, a new Pew poll documents the gap between those who have gone to the battlefield and those who haven't. Margret Warner reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, after a decade of the United States at war, Margaret Warner talks with some who have gone to the battlefield and with some who have stayed behind, as a new Pew Research poll documents the gulf between them.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s another busy day for 31-year-old college senior Sean Grove (ph). After five years in the Army, including 12 months in Iraq, he left to pursue a second college degree at the University of Maryland. He also works assisting the 800 or so veterans on this campus of 35,000. But whether he’s there or at home, Grove feels disconnected from fellow students who haven’t served.

MAN: On my block, I’m the only one with an American flag hanging out front. I remember when I got out and talked to other guys my age, they weren’t in the military. And I was, like, kind of shocked, like, what, you have never served in the military?

MARGARET WARNER: Chances are, they didn’t. The 10 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq triggered by the 9/11 attacks have been the longest period of sustained combat in U.S. history, yet fought with an all-volunteer force. That’s meant only about half of 1 percent of Americans have been on active duty at any one time in the decade, a mere fraction of the 9 percent who served at the height of World War II.

To mark tomorrow’s 10th anniversary of the start of the Afghan war, a new poll from the Pew Research Center explores this recent military civilian gap in service and how it’s affected attitudes about war and sacrifice in the post-9/11 era.

Among both groups Pew found great respect for those who fought — 96 percent of 9/11 era vets feel proud of their service. And 91 percent of the public, whatever their attitudes on the wars, feel proud of those who served.

But 44 percent of this generation of vets report trouble adjusting to civilian life, far more than after past wars. And more than 70 percent of vets and non-vets alike agree that the American people don’t understand the problems these modern era vets face.

To explore those findings we visited two groups of students on the University of Maryland campus this week. The veterans at Maryland ranged in age, rank and experience. But all said their military service had changed them for the better.

First-generation American Henry Carbajales enlisted in the Marines a year after 9/11. A communication specialist for eight years, including 22 months in Iraq, he’s now back as a freshman studying computer science.

HENRY CARBAJALES, University of Maryland: I’m very proud of it. It made me a better man, a better citizen. I may not have — may not have a concrete goal what to do in my life, but at least I know I’m capable to achieve anything I want to achieve, all thanks to the military.

VALARIE AUSTIN, University of Maryland: Military directs you and focuses you.

MARGARET WARNER: West Point grad Valarie Austin retired as an Army lieutenant colonel after 21 years, including service as a military intelligence officer in the first Gulf War. Now pursuing a second college degree in computer science, Austin feels civilian students have little awareness of the current wars or the effort that goes into fighting them.

VALARIE AUSTIN: A lot of the students that are here, they have lived through 9/11 for the last 10 years. So they have almost begun to in some ways disassociate with it. It’s just something that’s happening over there.

MARGARET WARNER: These vets didn’t want to dwell on their wartime sacrifice. But on returning, they said, a gulf opened up with old friends and new ones.

Maryland senior Chris Day joined the Army for four years after high school, spending two tours in Afghanistan. He found it tough adjusting when he moved back and into a freshman dorm.

CHRIS DAY, University of Maryland: You know, I couldn’t relate. I was so happy and motivated to be here, and they were just, you know, crying about having to wake up for an 8:00 a.m. class. And I was like pumped to go to an 8:00 a.m. class and glad I wasn’t waking up before the sun rose, you know?

And so they, students, the perceptions are completely different, and, you know, where I feel as though we’re a whole lot more grateful for the small things that, you know, color, like, outside, there’s grass and there’s a sun that doesn’t have dust over it.

MARGARET WARNER: This doesn’t surprise Maryland professor David Segal, who directs a military organization research center there and consulted on the poll.

DAVID SEGAL, University of Maryland: The veterans are older than our regular undergraduate students coming right out of high school. They have had life experiences that the other students haven’t had. And they certainly feel that the other students tend not to understand what they have been through. And they’re absolutely right.

MARGARET WARNER: But it’s more than the age difference. These vets say few of their fellow students or professors even ask about what they have been through.

HENRY CARBAJALES: I will get this randomly, where I would just — I guess they call it a 1,000-yard stare. As for my teachers, fellow peers, I don’t really talk about what I have done, what I — just, yes, I was in the service, and that’s it. They don’t really ask any questions.

SHELLY BURGOYNE, University of Maryland: You know, veterans coming home aren’t — A., they are not victims. They have experienced something hard. They have come back. They are stronger from it. And they are normal Americans trying to live their life.

MARGARET WARNER: Master’s degree student Shelly Burgoyne, a retired 37-year-old Army lieutenant with two tours in Iraq, thinks post-9/11 vets are having a tough time reentering civilian life because they’re such an anomaly in their generation.

SHELLY BURGOYNE: When men came back from World War II, they all had served, so there was a common — a commonality. And they had a community of people around them that understood them on a daily basis. And they integrated back into society well.

MARGARET WARNER: She’s right, says Pew Center executive vice president Paul Taylor, one of the poll’s co-authors.

PAUL TAYLOR, Pew Research Center: They are not as fully integrated in the full society as has been the case with our warriors in past wars. Here, the post-9/11 veterans stand out. They have — 44 percent say that they have had difficulties readjusting to civilian life. We asked the same question of the older veterans who served in earlier years, and 25 percent said that.

MARGARET WARNER: To talk with non-vet students on the Maryland campus, we went to an undergraduate English class. The students were preparing a reading of Euripides’ play “The Bacchae.”

These undergrads spent their entire teenage years in the shadow of war, yet feel scarcely touched by it.

Senior Nick Krug is an English major.

NICK KRUG, University of Maryland: And I think, you know, for me, it’s inconsequential. For me, I have been able to, unfortunately, take it for granted, take it for granted for what the soldiers have done. I don’t think about it my daily life. Really, just having these questions asked, that is the only time I think about it. So, that is pretty of the biggest tragedy, I think, of what is going on.

MARGARET WARNER: I asked senior Anna Isaacs, an aspiring journalist, about how the war has touched her.

Has this decade of war required any sacrifice from you or your family?

ANNA ISAACS, University of Maryland: No, not from my family. And I think that’s the worst part.

MARGARET WARNER: Like most Americans polled, senior Omari James, hoping to be a teacher, professed great admiration for his fellow students who are veterans.

OMARI JAMES, University of Maryland: Immense respect, immense respect, because, I mean, just walking past them, in their uniforms, or you know them to have served, they elicit that respect.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet they admitted they don’t know many veterans on campus and never considered the military for themselves after high school.

ANNA ISAACS: I only ever met people who had served in these wars when I came to college. And they tend to be people from, you know, poorer backgrounds, from different areas, from the South. And, yes, it makes you question, you know, why are these the people who are over there, and why not us? And why is that?

MARGARET WARNER: So what can be done to bridge the gap? The Pew poll showed both the public and veterans have such confidence in the professional military that they don’t want to return to a draft.

SHEILA MCMENAMIN, University of Maryland: I will serve the country some day by teaching. My friend will serve the country by being a great doctor. There’s countless ways to do it. It just depends on how you look at it.

MAN: And that could be anything, helping out the community.

HENRY CARBAJALES: I see it as like a pyramid effect. Right now, it’s just us and our families, and then their friends. If we do something nationally, where everybody gets involved, it will make the pyramid a lot bigger, and I think people will then start seeing greater appreciation.

MARGARET WARNER: That appreciation and more understanding from the American people is what the post-9/11 veterans most yearn for.