This Veterans Day 2017, I thought I would take it upon myself, for those of you perhaps not familiar with the U.S. veteran community, to provide for you a guide to the different types — or categories — of veterans you might encounter in modern American society.

This guide will of course not be perfect, nor even all-encompassing, but it should suffice as a basic reference for your use as you navigate through the veteran community.  After all, it can be confusing for a civilian out there to know exactly how to honor a veteran on Veterans Day, and it helps to have more to say than “thank you for your service” in the course of your interaction.  Well, you can now read the categories below and add a “where and when did you serve?” to your repertoire, drawing on this guide for background.


The World War II-Korea Veteran (the mythical hero)

This is of course the group of veterans often rightly called the Greatest Generation.  In 2017, they are few and far between and we are losing them at a rapid rate.   They are now elderly, sometimes frail, but always majestic and radiating heroism and resolve.  They are our living museum pieces and flesh-and-blood symbols of Americans as our greatest selves.  They are exemplified by men like George H.W. Bush, and others who shipped off to war as young as 18 and fought to victory against one of the world’s greatest evils, and in one of the harshest climates imaginable in Korea.  It will not be long before we will no longer have them around to thank for their service, and that will be heartbreaking.

The Vietnam Veteran (the elder statesman)

These are the men you will see with their Vietnam Veteran hats, unit patches and expressions of fierce pride for what they did in Southeast Asia for an often thankless populace back here at home.  Their war was often brutal and savage, and fought in some of the toughest conditions in the world.  For so long, these men were unappreciated and misunderstood.  They were stigmatized as representative of an America divided and turned against itself.  Perhaps only now are they universally appreciated for what they did in serving America in one of the most difficult of wars.  They are the deans of today’s veteran corps, and it seems like we as a country have finally come to see them for the heroes they always were.

The Cold War & Gulf War Veteran (the overlooked)

The generation of men and women who served after the end of the Vietnam War and up through the late 1990s are today’s “forgotten veterans.”  They served in a time when conflict was usually swift and politically fraught — when it happened — and during part of which, America was an unchallenged force.  We were face to face with a nuclear-armed ideological enemy for most of this era, and we were a juggernaut and steamrolled our enemies after the Soviet Union fell.  These veterans served in engagements in Panama, Grenada, El Salvador, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Colombia and beyond.  They fought a decisive war in Iraq.  Theirs was an era of limited warfare, yet they still served around the world, wherever they were called.  We should never forget to honor their service.

The 9/11 Veteran (the vanguard of a new era)

These were the men and women who signed up shortly before 9/11, not expecting a service career filled with warfare.  Just the opposite, they thought their’s would be a continuation of the post-Vietnam era, one of limited and small-scale wars.  That did not necessarily make them happy, as they longed to serve in a meaningful way for their country.  They believed they would need to compete to do so and to fight to be involved in the existing conflicts.  Then September 11th happened and everything changed.  They immediately knew that theirs would be a different era.  They were the vanguard of today’s era of the Long War.  What started as a war for retribution against terrorists in Afghanistan would expand into so much more, and they would be the first of a new generation of American service men and women to spend their whole military careers in constant war. 

The Modern Long War Veteran (the Atlas Generation)

Finally, we have our newest generation of veterans — those men and women who signed up in the wake of 9/11, and who are signing up today knowing exactly what they are getting themselves into.  These young men and women have spent their entire military careers in a service at war.  They have carried the nation’s burden and are owed a tremendous debt.  They have their whole lives in front of them, either in a lifelong military career or in the civilian world after their service.  They will help lead America into the future and their efforts over the last 16 years have earned them the title of the Atlas Generation.  They have carried us on their shoulders, and have their job cut out for them in assuming roles of political leadership in the future.  They will need to bring us back together as a nation and remind us that we are all Americans, and that our’s is a society and culture worth fighting for.

Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.