The War at Home: Attitudes Toward Veterans Returning from Iraq

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Principal investigator:

Meredith Kleykamp

University of Maryland



Sample size: 3021

Field period: 7/30/2009-9/25/2009


Here we investigate public attitudes toward military veterans and compare them against attitudes toward private military contractors. We also examine how public attitudes toward veterans differ based on the nature of the military experience, focusing especially on the effect of deployment and combat experience relative to service inside the Continental U.S. We use data from a nationally representative survey that incorporates an experimental design, allowing us to assess the extent to which attitudes toward military veterans and private contractors differ, and whether attitudes toward individuals vary based on combat experience, deployment status. In brief, we find people view combat veterans in sometimes contradictory ways, as having more problems, but deserving more help. The public is more likely to assume that such combat veterans have substance, violence, and psychological problems, and they also are more likely to believe that these veterans should be treated preferentially by employers and helped by government programs. Contrary to a prediction of labeling theory, they do not tend to want disproportionately to avoid combat veterans, or to desire greater social distance from such veterans, even while veterans are perceived to have psychological, substance and aggression problems. Instead, they appear to want to less social distance from and to provide more help to such veterans. To the extent that veterans are not personally responsible for the conditions leading to their perceived problems (i.e. for combat), these findings are consistent with a variant of labeling theory that emphasizes the role of causal attributions.


Is there a generalized stigma of mental illness for a generation of veterans?

Does the public feel veterans are deserving of government help and preferences in hiring?

Does the public socially shun or support veterans?

How do assumptions of mental health and behavioral problems among veterans affect the public's willingness to engage with them socially?

Experimental Manipulations

Survey respondents read a short vignette in which selected characteristics of an individual described in the vignette were varied. Approximately 500 respondents were randomly assigned to one of six different vignettes. Three of the six vignettes described a man who recently finished serving in the military while the other three reflected a man who recently worked for a private military contractor. Both the military and non-military vignettes were divided into three different categories. In the first, the man was described as having only served or worked in the United States. In the second category, the man was described as having served or worked in Iraq. In the third category, the man described had served or worked in Iraq and came under enemy fire.


After reading the vignettes, the survey respondents answered 8 questions. The first three questions assessed social distance, which was measured by how pleased the respondents were about the prospect of the man described in the vignette becoming a neighbor, friend, or co-worker. The second two questions assessed whether they thought that the man described in the vignette should be helped by the government or receive preferential hiring treatment from employers. The last three questions assessed whether the subjects would be surprised to learn that the person described in the vignette had problems with mental health, substance abuse, or violent behavior.

Summary of Results

Deployment or explicit mention of combat exposure is associated with higher assumption of problems among both contractors and military veterans. We interpret this as evidence of a generalized stigma based on serving in a hostile location.
Deservingness of help depends on combination of service (in the military rather than as a contractor) and sacrifice (deployment to a hostile zone). Military personnel are on average rated as more deserving of help, but serving or working in a hostile zone merits help for both contractors and military veterans.

Military veterans engender the least social distance (the public finds them more desirable to interact with socially), but sacrifice among PMC earns them respect (not enough to better non-deployed military). Level of sacrifice doesn't differentiate veterans; no significant differences among veterans based on deployment or exposure to combat.


Kleykamp, Meredith. 2010. "The Context of Reception for Veterans." Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies Conference, Cambridge, UK.

Kleykamp, Meredith and Alair MacLean. 2010. "The War at Home: Attitudes toward Veterans Returning From Iraq." American Sociological Association annual meeting, Atlanta, GA.