Despite a budget larger than those of the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the entire U.S. intelligence community combined, “the [Department of Veteran Affairs] and other federal agencies struggle to keep other promises to active service members and veterans after they come home [beyond bringing them home],” writes Center for a New American Security Senior Fellow and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Phillip Carter in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs. “The United States must rewrite the contract it strikes with its service members, building a support system that not only ameliorates their battle wounds and financial losses but also helps them thrive after their service in a twenty-first-century economy.”

Carter chronicles the evolving role of veterans throughout U.S. history, identifying a distinct shift in the social contract with the advent of an all-volunteer military “that has grown increasingly distinct from the population as a whole.”

A result is a system of mixed incentives, with one set of programs that compensate disabled veterans for losses incurred during service and potentially discourage veterans from improving their conditions and another set of programs that help veterans get off the disability roster “by enabling veterans to outperform [in the private sector] those who have not served.”

Carter recommends that “the government should expand benefits such as the Post-9/11 GI Bill and small-business financing” and “find ways to leverage the enormous social capital that veterans develop during their service for economic and societal gain.” He cites Israel as an example, where intelligence and special operations veterans units move seamlessly into the technology and start-up world.

Carter advises, “Washington should also be mindful of the ways in which the increasing civil-military divide exacerbates the struggles of veterans—for example, fueling veteran unemployment because of the cultural gap between civilian employers and their veteran employees.”

Carter concludes, “For the foreseeable future, the United States will rely on a relatively small, volunteer military. Its success depends on its ability to draw in high-quality recruits. And that, in turn, depends on the perception that service will benefit soldiers, their families, and their country.”

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