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Why So Few Veterans in Congress?

Why are there so few veterans in Congress these days?

The end of the military draft 40 years ago and the gradual retirement and passing away of the World War II generation have contributed to a record low of 17 veterans in the 100-member U.S. Senate.

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In the House of Representatives the total of 85 veterans - out of 435 members - is also the lowest since World War II.

The high point came in the 1970s, when Congress' ranks were filled with World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans. There were 80 veterans in the Senate from 1973 to 1975, and 347 in the House from 1977 to 1978.

Senate Historian Donald A. Ritchie says that military service used to be very helpful in winning elections. Having fewer veterans now has a downside for comity in Congress.

"In the past there were active reserve units on Capitol Hill and veterans used to meet for service-related breakfasts and other occasions," Ritchie says. "Those included members of both parties and both ends of the political spectrum, and helped to bridge some of the partisan divides."

One of the best-known veterans on Capitol Hill is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) lost both legs in the Iraq war. The three House members who served the longest ago - all in the 1940s - are Republican Ralph Hall of Texas and Democrat John Dingell of Michigan, both of whom served in World War II, and Democrat Charles Rangel of New York, who served just after the war. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), a Navy reservist, served in three different military actions: Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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One senator and eight House members are still serving in the Reserves, and six House members are still serving in the National Guard, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Chart: Pew Research Center

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