A veteran is someone who has served in the military.


5 - 8


Social Studies, Civics, U.S. History


Korean War Veteran

Veterans are often seen as one of the most respected groups in the United States. This veteran celebrates his service and that of his colleagues in one of the many Veteran's Day parades thrown every year in the United States.

Photograph by the Boston Globe
Veterans are often seen as one of the most respected groups in the United States. This veteran celebrates his service and that of his colleagues in one of the many Veteran's Day parades thrown every year in the United States.

A veteran is a person who has served in the military. Under United States law, a veteran is any person who served honorably on active duty in any of the five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard). Veteran status is not affected by where a person served, how long, or whether they saw active combat. Members of the National Guard or Reserves are only considered veterans if they were deployed by federal orders.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that, in 2018, there were more than 19.6 million living veterans. This represents less than 10 percent of the total U.S. adult population. About three-quarters of veterans served during wartime. The number of veterans has been decreasing in recent years, a trend that the Department of Veteran Affairs suggests will continue. In part this decline is due to a smaller U.S. military. There are currently more than 1.29 million men and women in active service in the U.S. military, which is the fewest since World War II. In addition, the advanced age of World War II veterans—once the largest category of veterans—means that they are dying in great numbers. Indeed, the Department of Veteran Affairs reports that an average of 372 World War II veterans die each day. This agency reports that fewer than 500,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World II were alive in 2018.

Veterans come from all walks of life. Many brave people have stepped up when the country needed them most—during World War II or following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Others enlisted in the military as a career. Because the United States has an all-volunteer military, defending the country is an important citizenship responsibility—a responsibility that many veterans have embraced at great sacrifice.

In the United States, we honor this sacrifice once a year on Veterans Day. Veterans Day is a U.S. holiday that occurs on November 11 each year. Federal offices are closed on November 11, or if this date falls on a Saturday or Sunday, on the nearest Friday or Monday. Some communities commemorate the holiday on the closest Friday or Monday to provide for a three-day weekend and allow more people to participate.

Veterans Day began as “Armistice Day,” celebrated for the first time on the anniversary of the end of World War I, or November 11, 1919. It became a national holiday in 1938, and was renamed Veterans Day in 1954.

The Department of Veterans Affairs oversees programs and benefits for America’s veterans and their families. Programs include educational opportunities, health care, and rehabilitation services, as well as compensation for disabilities or death related to military services. Many veterans who have seen combat have lingering (sometimes lifelong) issues related to post traumatic stress disorder or other emotional or mental health difficulties; the Department of Veterans Affairs is committed to helping with such problems. In addition, all former military personnel are entitled to be buried at a national cemetery or to have a U.S. flag draped over the casket. This is a last symbol of respect and thanks for service to the country.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Specialist, Content Production
Clint Parks
André Gabrielli, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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