Congress hasn’t had at least 100 members of the House and Senate with military backgrounds since 2017. But the veterans caucus in the legislature right now is close enough to challenge that mark in the 2024 elections.
The number of veterans in Congress has steadily declined since the 1970s, a shift which mostly reflects the change to the all-volunteer force and the dwindling number of Americans who enlist annually.
But veterans advocates have worried that decline has also taken away valuable insight for lawmakers as they craft national security policy, veterans support plans and defense budget proposals.
In 1973, the total number of veterans serving in House and Senate seats was 401 — 75% of all the seats in both chambers. By 1995, that number was down to 213 seats. It dropped below 100 for the first time in 2013.
A total of 97 lawmakers with military backgrounds were elected in 2022, 80 in the House and 17 in the Senate. That was up five veterans from the previous congressional elections, and only the fourth time in the last 50 years there has been any increase at all in the total veterans elected.
Of that group, 58 veterans (60%) served at least part of their enlistment after 2001. Advocates are hopeful that the younger generation of veterans will help push that number back up, albeit to a much lower level than the past historic marks.
But doing so will require some luck at the ballot box.
Already, the Senate is scheduled to lose one veteran next year. Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the last Vietnam veteran serving in the chamber, has announced his plans to retire from Congress.
Two veterans in the House — Ohio Republican Reps. Brad Wenstrup and Bill Johnson — have also announced plans to leave Congress.
That means at least three new candidates with military experience will need to win state races in order to keep the number of veterans in Congress steady.
Most primary battles for House and Senate seats will be decided later this spring, giving candidates the summer to campaign for the general election. By early summer, advocates should have a clearer idea whether the number of veterans aiming for those seats is increasing or on the downturn again.