Military service and the life course: An assessment of what we know

by Jay Teachman, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology, Western Washington University
NCFR Report

Over the last 60 years, at least 1.5 million military personnel have been on active duty in each year, affecting 10% to 70% of relevant birth cohorts. The peak participation figures are for birth cohorts affected by war and large-scale conscription (World War II, Korea, Vietnam), but military service is common even for peacetime birth cohorts. For example, a recent study estimates that 17% of Black men and 14% of White men born 1965-1969 have served in the military (Pettit & Western, 2004). If men experiencing incarceration are excluded, nearly one in four Black men of this generation has served in the military. An often-ignored fact is that the military remains the single largest employer of young men in the United States. Thus, military service is not an anomaly or an isolated event in the transition to adulthood, even during the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) era; it is a common event that occurs at ages during which many men (and increasingly women) are making decisions about education, careers, and intimate relationships. Military service also occurs at an age when service members are forming lifelong habits that will affect their health in the future.

Given the continuing importance of military service in American life, it is important to understand its relationship to important components of the life course. In this report I consider the relationship between military service and several life course outcomes, including crime and delinquency; marriage, divorce, and cohabitation; socioeconomic attainment; and health. I also indicate some important limitations in our knowledge base.

Crime and Delinquency

Research on crime and delinquency illustrates well the importance of time and place when considering the impact of military service. The available literature suggests that service during World War II acted to reduce the likelihood that veterans would engage in criminal or delinquent behavior (Sampson & Laub, 1996). For veterans of the Vietnam era, however, this was less true, and there is even some evidence that Vietnam veterans were more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs than nonveterans (Bouffard & Laub, 2004). More recently, veterans of the AVF are more likely to experience contact with the legal system than comparable nonveterans (Bouffard, 2005).

As important as it is, the available research is limited in several ways. First, the data sources for earlier cohorts of veterans are restricted to small, specialized samples. The limitations of these samples (lack of geographic, racial, and socioeconomic variation) make it difficult to identify the true pattern of change across time. Second, these studies continue to struggle with appropriate procedures to deal with selectivity into the military. This is an especially important concern for any life course outcome given the fact that the military has always screened recruits on criteria such as health, education, mental aptitude, and criminal history. This means that military recruits are far from being a random subset of all Americans. Third, the mechanisms through which military service may influence crime and delinquency remain poorly specified, both within and among different cohorts of veterans. In this vein, it is important to note that variation and changes in the civilian environment facing veterans and non-veterans may be as important to consider as variation and change in the military environment that act upon veterans. Thus, alterations in civilian opportunities for educational and economic success are likely to be as important as changes in the nature of selectivity into the military and the nature of military service. As we shall see, points two and three are important considerations for other outcomes of military service.

Marriage, Divorce, and Cohabitation

An important component of the life course involves family transitions. Most research in the field has tied military service to the likelihood of divorce, with much less attention being paid to marriage or cohabitation. Moreover, much of the literature tends to be contradictory. For example, one study found that military service during World War II raised the risk of divorce (Pavalko & Elder, 1990), while another finds a decreased risk of divorce for the same period (Ruger, Wilson, & Waddoups, 2002). Such variations in findings are likely due to differences in datasets and analysis procedures and highlight the difficulty in specifying an effect of military service on life course behavior.

Research on veterans of the Vietnam era tends to be more consistent. This literature generally finds that service during the Vietnam era had little to no effect on risk of divorce (Ruger et al., 2002). The literature is also reasonably consistent in finding that combat exposure increases the risk of divorce among veterans of this era. Evidence for the post-Vietnam era indicates that divorce rates while serving in the military are generally lower than for comparable civilians, particularly for Black men (Lundquist, 2006; Teachman, 2008). After active-duty service, though, there appears to be little difference between veterans and nonveterans in the risk of divorce.

The literature pertaining to military service, marriage, and cohabitation is limited. The available evidence suggests that rates of marriage are particularly high during active-duty military service in the AVF era, with Blacks being as likely to marry as Whites, contrary to the case for civilians. In addition, the evidence indicates that men serving on active duty are much more likely than civilian men to choose marriage over cohabitation, and active-duty military service is strongly linked to the likelihood that cohabiting unions will be converted into marriages rather than dissolved. Active-duty military service thus appears to be supportive of marriage.

The literature linking marriage, divorce, and cohabitation is limited in several fashions, though. First, it is difficult to obtain consistent data on these important family life course statuses across different historical eras. Only more recently have event history data collecting the dates of important transitions for nationally representative samples become available. Second, the mechanisms linking military service to these family life course events remain unclear. While active-duty service appears to spur marriage, at least for more recent cohorts, the mechanisms by which this occurs remain opaque and crudely measured at best. Third, it is not known to what extent military service affects marriage, divorce, and cohabitation after leaving active duty. Fourth, although we have begun to accumulate information about a select number of family-related transitions, other family events such as childbearing, child rearing, and kin relationships remain severely under researched.

Socioeconomic Attainment

There is a relatively rich history of research investigating the consequences of military service for subsequent socioeconomic attainment. Most of this research focuses on education and income. The earliest research, focused on World War II, suggested considerable benefit to serving in the military. A number of studies found that veterans of World War II received an income premium (Fredland & Little, 1980). More recent research, however, has found little impact of service during World War II on income, largely due to increased awareness of the need to control for selectivity (Teachman & Tedrow, 2004). That is, veterans would have earned more than nonveterans even if they had not served. An exception occurs for Black veterans and veterans with little preservice education. Minorities and lesser educated Whites appear to gain some benefit from military service irrespective of selectivity.

This pattern of findings–little to no positive effect of military service on income except for disadvantaged groups–is repeated for both the Vietnam and AVF eras (Teachman, 2004; Teachman & Tedrow, 2007). Indeed, for both eras, White men saw declines in their civilian incomes as a result of military service, even when controlling for selectivity. Other research has also found similar results for education only minority men seem to have benefited educationally from military service (Teachman, 2005). An exception to the pattern for education occurs for veterans of World War II, however. The availability of the G.I. Bill appears to have increased the level of education obtained by veterans of this era (Stanley, 2003).

Even though much has been learned, this body of literature too is limited in many ways. First, there remains a lack of data that can be used to compare the consequences of military service across different eras. This makes it difficult to understand why changes in the consequences of military service may have occurred over time. Second, the number of socioeconomic outcomes that have been investigated is limited. Income and education are most commonly considered, but outcomes such as occupations, wealth accumulation, and home ownership are scarcely discussed. Third, paths of socioeconomic attainment, and the interrelationships between various components of attainment over the life course, have largely been ignored. Only recently have researchers begun to move beyond static indicators of income and education. Fourth, research on socioeconomic attainment continues to struggle with appropriate controls for selectivity and precise specification of the mechanisms through which military service impacts postservice accomplishments.


A large body of literature has investigated the health consequences of military service. Much of this research focuses on PTSD and the negative effects of combat. Irrespective of historical era, combat is positively linked to PTSD and other negative health effects (Dobkin & Shabani, 2007). Other research has linked military service during times of combat to excess mortality later in life (Bedard & Deschenes, 2006). The link between combat, PTSD, and mortality is not unexpected and its pervasiveness across different cohorts of veterans speaks to the powerful impact that highly stressful military service can have on the lives of veterans.

A strength of this literature is that it identifies mechanisms through which military service negatively affects health. The negative mental health effects of experiencing combat have been well-identified and exist across all cohorts of military veterans. In addition, the excessive use of tobacco among men in the military is a contributor to their excess mortality (Bedard & Deschenes, 2006). A variety of research has clearly shown that military service is related to abuse of tobacco and alcohol products. Some authors have also tied military service to risk-taking behaviors that impact mortality through accidental deaths (e.g., speeding, motorcycle riding).

Nevertheless, a significant gap in the literature exists, in that there is very little research that addresses the health implications of noncombat military service. While we know that veterans who experience combat have more negative health outcomes than noncombat veterans, we do not know how noncombat veterans compare to the general population. On one hand, the screening process that selects veterans into the service suggests that they should be healthier than nonveterans. On the other hand, poor health habits (use of tobacco and alcohol) learned in the military may operate to negate any positive selectivity effect. The existing literature also fails to fully consider how variations in military service affect health. For example, are the health-related effects of military service different for officers versus enlisted men, for different military occupational specialties, for different terms of service? In addition, with the exception of tobacco and alcohol use, there is little indication in the literature of the mechanisms through which military service affects health. Variations in life course patterns of education, income, and occupational attainment associated with military service may impact health outcomes.

Some Final Thoughts

I have noted some of the weaknesses in our knowledge base with respect to particular topics. Additional weaknesses involve our almost complete lack of knowledge about the relationship between military service and the life course outcomes of women veterans. The same limitation applies to the life course outcomes of veterans who are gay or lesbian. As the military becomes more diverse, it is important to continue gaining knowledge about its impact across different groups of individuals who choose to serve.

Contact Jay Teachman at [email protected]