Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is one leader among many who has rightly bemoaned the lack of veterans serving in key national security roles. While most would acknowledge that veterans hold a background that makes them uniquely qualified to weigh in on matters of foreign policy, Hagel recently noted that none of today’s remaining presidential candidates has served in the military — nor have members of the current administration’s senior national security team.
This is a problem that needs correction, primarily by the nonprofit sector. While civilians are certainly capable of deep understanding and insight into the military experience and foreign policy, few would argue that there is a value in having decision-makers at the table for whom the experience is not simply academic. Yet this is actually becoming less common in recent decades.
Those who have served in the military now represent “less than one-half of 1% of the U.S. population.” While Members of Congress have a solemn responsibility on matters of war and peace, resource allocation for national defense and foreign aid, and care for veterans, the personal connection to the military of the average member has declined over time. During the 1970’s, military service among Members of Congress was above 70 percent for both the House of Representatives and Senate; today, that number has fallen to under 20 percent.
This is why it has never been more important that organizations step in to help address this concern. While there are many groups in the foreign policy space, relatively few have dedicated resources and effort into getting veterans involved in foreign policy. Nonprofits like Veterans4Diplomacy have begun to tackle the problem, matching veterans as Fellows to accomplished mentors in the field of national security. Fellows then use that guidance to apply for prestigious scholarships and fellowships to obtain skills and a network in the national security apparatus.
The value add of the nonprofit sector is that it has the ability to bring veterans into foreign policy with specific organizations or through collaboration with others. While the Departments of State and Defense have missions that require their staffs’ efforts to be focused on being practitioners of national security and diplomacy, organizations like Veterans4Diplomacy and HillVets can help get veterans the credentials required to become those practitioners. Collaborations between universities and think tanks can bridge this divide as well, as evidenced by Take Point University, a partnership held between the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Atlantic Council to get student veterans involved in foreign policy.
These are the kind of commonsense ideas needed from the nonprofit sector to fix the problem Secretary Hagel has conveyed. As military service becomes more and more an imprint on the few, ensuring those experiences are brought forward to enrich the policies our government carries out becomes more difficult. With now only 7.3% of living Americans having ever served in the military, the pool of qualified veteran candidates able to serve in senior roles in government continues to shrink.
Without dedicated efforts from the nonprofit sector to address this concern, and without financial community support to bolster those efforts, we risk losing the voices of veterans in our foreign policy forever. And in today’s world, theirs is not a voice we can afford to lose.