Economic battle awaits combat vets

(Photo: Alair MacLean. Photo by Shari Clevenger, WSU Vancouver)

Combat veterans from the military draft period — those who actually fought in America’s wars from World War II to Vietnam — are less likely to be employed or to have been employed, according to a WSU study. If employed, they tended to earn less than either noncombat veterans or nonveterans of the same age.

Comparisons were made among veterans and their peers on a year-by-year basis from 1968-1994.

 “Experiencing combat has that long-term effect, 10 to 30 years after their service was completed,” explained Alair MacLean, assistant professor of sociology at WSU Vancouver.

The comparison is one of the preliminary findings of a study of American veterans funded by the National Institute on Aging and begun by MacLean in March.

“Part of the reason these combat veterans have lower earnings and higher unemployment rates is that they have higher rates of disability, but more study is needed,” she said.

MacLean is also trying to answer the question: Who ended up in combat?

“During the time of the military draft, from World War II until 1974, service was more egalitarian than it is today.  Those who served did not tend to come from nonwhite or poor families.

“However, having a college degree was protective, because those with a degree were less likely to go into combat,” she said.

MacLean said her interest in veterans began while she was studying at the University of Wisconsin. She chose that subject for her doctoral thesis. Following completion of her Ph.D. in 2004, she published an article on the topic while working as a post-doctoral fellow at the Rand Corporation.
She applied for the National Institute on Aging grant while at Rand, and then transferred the grant to WSU when she joined the faculty in 2006.

“Studying veterans was a foreign world to me,” she said. “I grew up during the time of the volunteer force. Many people like me had virtually no contact with veterans.

“Now, however, this is more than just an academic study for me. As I interview veterans and learn more about their experiences, I have become more invested. I am glad to be doing this research, because this is huge part of society that we need to pay attention to.”