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Study: Link between military service and volunteering is complex

Research has found that military service is tied to civic engagement. But a study from Indiana University finds the connection is much stronger for some subgroups than for others, raising questions about military-civilian relationships in the era of the all-volunteer force.

The study, "Soldiers to Citizens: The Link between Military Service and Volunteering," was published in the January-February issue of Public Administration Review. It draws on U.S. Census data to examine the frequency of volunteer activities for veterans compared with that of the population at large.

David Reingold

David Reingold

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Authors are David Reingold, professor and executive associate dean of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington; and Rebecca Nesbit, assistant professor of nonprofit management at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Nesbit began the research as an IU doctoral student.

"There is a connection between military service and civic engagement for some groups of veterans, but the overall relationship is not that robust," Reingold says. "This could raise concerns about whether the U.S. military is growing isolated as an institution, with veterans becoming less likely to transition from service to their country to service to their communities when they come home."

The study draws on data from the September 2005 Volunteering Supplement of the Current Population Survey, a monthly Census Bureau survey of approximately 50,000 households including more than 150,000 individuals. Reingold worked to have the Volunteering Supplement added to the survey in 2002, when he directed the Office of Research and Policy Development of the U.S. Corp. for National and Community Service. It includes questions about the frequency and intensity of volunteering.

Veterans' survey responses regarding volunteering were examined in light of factors such as racial and ethnic classifications, marital status and household income.

"Military service may be a particularly important gateway to civic engagement for minorities who serve," Nesbit said. "In a similar manner to church participation, military service can provide veterans with the skills, resources, and values that support later volunteering."

Researchers found volunteering was more likely for veterans than for non-veterans among married people, African-Americans and Hispanics. African-American and Hispanic veterans were more likely to volunteer than white veterans. Veterans who served during wartime were more likely to volunteer than others. Among unmarried whites, however, veterans were less likely to volunteer than non-veterans.

Rebecca Nesbit

Rebecca Nesbit

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"Military service interacts with other aspects of individual and community life," Reingold and Nesbit write, "including marriage, ethnic identity, and life course, and it is this interaction that seems to be responsible for determining whether military service spills over into higher rates of community service."

The authors note that a popular narrative of military service, especially during World War II, makes an explicit link between military experience and forms of civic engagement, including voting and membership in civic organizations. The implication is that military service spills over into service in civilian life. However, a counter-narrative maintains that military service is unique and shouldn't be conflated with less dangerous and demanding forms of engagement.

A possible explanation for some of the trends, Reingold and Nesbit say, is that the culture of the military has changed since the advent of the all-volunteer force in 1973. Motivations for joining the military may have shifted away from a sense of duty and love for country to a desire for occupational and economic opportunity -- a chance to "be all you can be."

The authors point out that researchers lack longitudinal data that would enable them to follow veterans over time and capture more precisely the factors that influence volunteering. Future research, they say, should try to identify which aspects of military life contribute to civilian engagement, so policymakers can better understand how the military may "contribute to the day-to-day practice of democracy."

The research was funded in part by a grant from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The article is available online at