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Shrinking vet numbers poses challenges

America’s veteran population is aging and rapidly shrinking, which means fewer people have a touchstone with the experiences of veterans like Edgar Moorman, Earl Chivers and Ryan Millard.

Moorman, of Dayton, survived a bombardment of shells and bullets while fighting in the South Pacific Theater in World War II.

Chivers, of Huber Heights, lost both his brother and a dear friend while fighting in the jungles of Vietnam.

Millard, of Springboro, saw fellow soldiers lose their lives and others their limbs while fighting in Afghanistan.

About one in 10 adult Ohioans today have served in the military, or more than 850,000 residents, according to U.S. Census data. That’s a big dip from 1980, when more than one in six Ohio adults had served.

Some fear the divide between military and civilian cultures could widen as the ranks of veterans continue to decline and residents become less likely to have a direct family connection to the Armed Forces.

“The decline in veteran population removes from our veterans strength in numbers,” said Anita Wagner, chapter president of the local branch of Blue Star Mothers of America that serves Miami and Shelby counties.

Ohio’s veteran population is declining partly because World War II veterans have reached old age.

More than 16 million Americans served in the war, but last year, there were less than 1.6 million of these veterans left, Census data show. More than 600 WWII vets die each day, according to federal estimates.

About 46 percent of Ohio’s veterans are 65 and older, and many are entering their twilight years.

“Fortunate to survive’

Edgar Moorman, 94, served as a radio operator in World War II after being drafted in January 1941.

Moorman, who was drafted before Pearl Harbor was bombed, said he saw combat in the South Pacific and remembers his unit being under constant attack.

“War is hell, and it was bad to see the dead on both sides,” he said. “I feel fortunate I was able to survive.”

Moorman, said after he returned home he was diagnosed with shell shock, or a nervous disability, which today would likely be called combat stress or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

But Moorman said he successfully transitioned back to civilian life, and he worked as a milk delivery man for 38 years and raised 12 children.

“I have so many children and they all want to help as much as they can,” said Moorman, who also has 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But Moorman said not all veterans have a strong family-support system like he does, and he wishes more people would volunteer to help meet the needs of local men and women who donned a military uniform.

About 48,000 Ohioans are currently serving on active duty, and many other residents have served or have loved ones who have served, said Mike McKinney, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Veterans Services.

In 2012, about 850,730 Ohioans 18 and older were veterans, or about 10 percent of the adult population, according to Census data.

“If 10 percent of the state is veterans, then it stands to reason that there are a lot of family connections there,” he said.

Fewer Americans serve

But the number of veterans in the state is down from 1.1 million in 2000 and 1.4 million in 1980. In 1980, more than 17 percent of Ohioans 16 and older had served in some branch of the Armed Forces.

The declines are attributable to the elimination of the draft in 1973. The transition to an all-volunteer military meant a smaller share of Americans enlisted.

After the 9/11 terrorists attacks, the United States was engaged in the longest period of sustained conflict in the nation’s history, but still only about 0.5 percent of Americans have been on active duty at any given time, according to a 2012 report from the Pew Research Center.

Troops today often serve on multiple tours. Younger Americans are also much less likely to have a family member who served than older residents, the report said.

McKinney said it can be hard for people without military experience or direct family ties to the Armed Forces to understand the hardships military families face.

“It’s like the old saying, ‘It’s hard to really know somebody until you walked a mile in their shoes,’” said McKinney, who is a veteran and who has two sons in active duty. “It is difficult to understand that unless you have some sort of connection. … And everything we enjoy in this country is made possible by what veterans have done.”

War’s lasting imprint

Veterans have unique life experiences that most civilians cannot understand because they have never been in situations that are remotely similar, said Marine Cpl. Ryan Millard, a Springboro resident who was a team leader in the Marine Corps Infantry.

“It’s hard to understand what it’s like to have a bullet three feet from your head, unless that actually happens to you,” he said. “I knew plenty of guys who lost limbs, and I knew a couple of guys who died. … They left families behind. Children. Wives.”

But Millard said it is not just combat and its violent outcomes that leave an imprint on troops. He said troops endure long periods without seeing or communicating with loved ones, and they must suffer through unpleasant living conditions. He said he did not appreciate modern plumbing until having to use a trash bag as a toilet overseas.

“Coming out of the military, I have such a different perspective on life than I did even just four years ago when I went in,” he said.

Millard served in Afghanistan between April and October 2011, and he returned from duty on October 25.

Millard said it was an experience that was at times miserable, scary, heart-breaking — but also incredible and life-changing.

He said he formed deep bonds with members of his unit, and he feels the adversity of serving strengthened his relationships with his wife and his father, who is also a Vietnam veteran.

But Millard said although many people may not be able to fully comprehend what veterans and their families go through, that does not mean they cannot make a difference in their lives.

He said he has been moved by unexpected kindness and generosity from strangers.

He said it was heartwarming when a stranger at a mall approached him and thanked him for serving. He said he was similarly taken aback when a group of senior citizens shook his hand and applauded him and other troops as they prepared to deploy at an airport in Bangor, Maine.

A U.S. flag every year

Earl Chivers, 65, of Huber Heights, said his eyes welled with tears when a stranger surprised him with a big hug in a grocery store to show her appreciation for his service in Vietnam.

Chivers, who was a gunner and a battalion radio operator, said he was stationed in North Vietnam at Con Thien, a U.S. Marine Corps. base nicknamed the “Hill of Angels” because of the many casualties that took place at the site.

Chivers survived intense and bloody combat.

But his brother, James Chivers, was killed in South Vietnam by enemy gunfire on June 16, 1968. A close friend of his was also killed in action only two weeks before that.

“My brother is buried at Woodland Cemetery, and in 40 years I have not missed putting a flag on his grave,” he said. “We were a close-knit family.”

Chivers said he relies on his wife, children and best friend — his older sister — for support and understanding.

He said the Marine Corps was his life and his passion, and his family knows what role it played in his life, and how it helped mold him into the man he is today.

“They know that once a Marine, always a Marine,” Chivers said.

Hugs, handshakes and applause means a lot to veterans, but community members can also can show their support by committing to hiring members of the military, said McKinney, with the veterans services department.

There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer that can make life more comfortable for veterans, he said.

John Fleeger Jr., 52, of Washington Twp., said he became a little uncomfortable when people thanked him or picked up his tab at restaurants after seeing him in uniform.

But Fleeger, a 23-year Air Force veteran who later served in the Ohio Military Reserve, said most veterans do not serve for the recognition but to protect the country.

However, he said “you appreciate being appreciated… But you don’t feel that worthy, because there are a lot of people who gave a lot more. There’s the old saying, ‘All gave some, but some gave all.’”

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