The overall number of veterans serving in Congress will likely drop again next session, even as the number of lawmakers who fought in the recent wars continues to rise.
An analysis from the nonpartisan Veterans Campaign shows that for the first time in 70 years, Congress could boast fewer than 100 veterans in the House and Senate in 2017. That is due in large part to retirements of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans, and the aging of America’s veterans population as a whole.
“So it’s natural to see the numbers drop,” said Seth Lynn, executive director of the campaign. “I feel like this is getting to the lower level we’re going to see for quite a while.”
Currently 21 veterans serve in the Senate, a number that’s expected to hold steady once the elections finish.
But the House looks certain to reduce its number of lawmakers with direct military experience. Today, 79 representatives are veterans, and Lynn said that number is likely to drop by about 10 percent in the November contests.
In the mid 1970s, nearly three-fourths of the House and Senate had served in the military, but it has declined steadily in the decades since. If the Veterans Campaign predictions hold true, that number will be just over 20 percent.
Still, that’s a larger percentage than veterans make up across the country. Only about 7 percent of Americans have served in the military.
“So veterans are still over-represented in Congress,” said Phil Carter, an Iraq War veteran and director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security.
“We live in a dangerous world. I still think it matters to have lawmakers who served. But the population trends show a long-term reduction in the size of the veterans population for years to come.”
Carter and Lynn each said they’re encouraged by the continued rise in the number of candidates who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. This year at least 54 candidates from those wars are vying for spots on Capitol Hill, almost a third of 172 veterans running in all the open congressional races.
The number of recent war veterans in Congress has risen every two years since 2006, when current Army Deputy Secretary Patrick Murphy became the first veteran who fought in Iraq to win election to the House.
Two years ago, Iowa Republican Joni Ernst became the first female Iraq War veteran and first female combat veteran to win a Senate seat, part of a class of 24 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans to win congressional elections in 2014.
Lynn noted that 10 female veterans are among the candidates this year, about the same as in 2014.
He also noted that veterans are hardly the only group over-represented in Congress. More lawmakers previously worked as lawyers and peace corps members than in the general population, and usually candidates’ unusual backgrounds help them stand out as trustworthy or uniquely qualified.
“It shouldn't matter whether you’re a veteran for Congress to do it’s job on military issues,” he said. “But the reality is that personal experience does help in dealing with those issues.”
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at