The nation may be heading for its first presidential election in 80 years without a military veteran on either major-party ticket.
President Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney have not served in the military, and most of Mr. Romney's rumored vice-presidential picks are not veterans either. The last time neither the presidential nor vice-presidential candidates of the two major tickets had military experience was in 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt — a former secretary of the Navy — defeated Herbert Hoover.
Mr. Romney's campaign declined to speculate on his vice-presidential choice or the likelihood that he would consider military service in his selection, but among the leading contenders mentioned for the No. 2 GOP slot — Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, John Thune, Tim Pawlenty, Condoleezza Rice, Mitch Daniels, Rob Portman and Bob McDonnell — only Mr. McDonnell is a veteran.
The Virginia governor served four years as a medical supply officer in the U.S. Army and rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve.
The lack of former service members in the presidential race fits a trend in the federal government, which has had a steady decline of veterans holding elected positions since the 1980s. With fewer officials claiming military experience, some say the government risks losing its grip on military affairs.
"I think what's been hurt is many officials don't have a sense of what the military is about," said Don Zillman, the president at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. A Vietnam veteran, Mr. Zillman has researched the significance of military experience in lawmaking.
"The military continues to be the one great school in the nation. I would like to have somebody in the White House who has had some period of military service."
Legacy of service
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the country's most famous World War II general. John F. Kennedy and George H.W. Bush were war heroes. John F. Kerry and Al Gore served in Vietnam, and George W. Bush joined the National Guard.
With the military draft in effect until 1973, serving a stint in the armed forces was simply a fact of life for many politicians who came of age from the 1940s through the 1990s.
Adlai Stevenson, who lost to Eisenhower twice in the 1950s, was a seaman apprentice in the Navy. Spiro T. Agnew was drafted into the Army at the start of World War II and earned a Bronze Star for his service in France and Germany. Even major third-party candidates — George C. Wallace (U.S. Army Air Forces flight engineer), John B. Anderson (U.S. Army field artilleryman, H. Ross Perot (U.S. Navy lieutenant) — were veterans.
Neither Abraham Lincoln nor Roosevelt, considered to be two of the country's greatest wartime presidents, had any significant military experience. But, for some scholars and analysts, time in the armed forces remains invaluable experience for someone looking to occupy the Oval Office.
"You don't have to spend too much time in the service for it to have a complete imprint" on your life experience, said retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, a 30-year Army veteran who served in Iraq, Bosnia and Somalia.
Mr. Zillman agrees with the retired general: Veterans often bring a more informed sense of the world and a better understanding of the high stakes of warfare to public service.
"The nature of the military experience is it forces you into international thinking," he said. "I get occasionally troubled by the thinking of some [members of Congress] where nothing matters outside their own district."
Some veterans organizations are also concerned that a Congress with fewer veterans could make it more difficult to enact laws meeting the needs of the military community.
"Former military have been central to veteran affairs because they empathize with the point of view," said Craig Roberts, a spokesman for the American Legion, the largest veterans organization in the country. "Whether we will have enough sympathizers in the future — it's something that's in the back of our mind."
A shift in 2008
The election of Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden four years ago marked the first time in 68 years that two running mates without any military service have held the highest offices in the land. The last ones were Roosevelt and Vice President Henry A. Wallace in 1940.
Prior to the 2008 election, 10 out of 11 presidents had served in some branch of the armed services, and in each of the 1972, 1976 and 1980 elections, all four presidential and vice-presidential nominees had military backgrounds.
Still, Mr. Obama has repeatedly listed veterans as a priority of his administration, pushing for additional protection for active and former service members after the recession.
In February, Mr. Obama proposed a 10 percent increase in funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs in response to the growing number of soldiers who have returned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
As a result, some contend that less military experience among officeholders will not translate into less concern for those who served.
John Strock, an Army veteran of more than 30 years who re-enlisted as a reservist last year, said he doesn't consider fewer veterans in government to be much of a problem.
"Of course, I would prefer a president that has military experience — that's common sense," Mr. Strock said after attending a congressional hearing on veterans' benefits last week. "But the fact that officials didn't serve shouldn't preclude them from caring. Everybody has to think like they're a veteran."
Former military members comprise about 22 percent of Congress, compared with roughly 31 percent a decade ago. Throughout the 1970s, that percentage bordered on 80 percent, and at least half of members had some military experience as recently as 1992.
The lower percentage of veterans reflects a trend in the overall population: Since 1975, active military personnel have accounted for less than 1 percent of the population. During Word War II, that percentage was 9 percent of the population.
James Jay Carafano, director of the Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, said the potential absence of a military veteran on the two presidential tickets this year is more an "accident of history and demographics" than a sign of something larger in the culture.
"If you fight a war with 12 million people in uniform and every able-bodied young man is being called up to serve, the odds are pretty good that veterans are going to be rising to positions of power for the next generations to come," he said. "It's an interesting observation, but it doesn't say anything about anything."
• Seth McLaughlin and researcher John Sopko contributed to this report.
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