U.S. Veterans

There are almost 18 million Veterans in the U.S. (roughly 7% of the U.S. adult population). We need to continuously make strides to understand the lived experiences and cultural context of U.S. Veterans to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and myths in media and marketing. Built with input from community partners, these U.S.-focused insights are a starting point to help you create marketing that positively and authentically represents people within the U.S. Veteran* community.

The insights below should help you understand some of the most important nuances that exist within this diverse group of people and to be more inclusive of those who have been historically under- or misrepresented in marketing. They are not exhaustive and should act as a starting point for your own research into U.S. Veteran experiences.

Use the correct terminology

While the government definition of a Veteran is “a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable,” cultural awareness of Veterans tends to overgeneralize, to include those still active, and representation in marketing and media often falls short of accurately depicting the nuances of Veteran life. It can be complex and challenging to use the correct terminology when talking about Veterans, but it’s important to be specific to prevent misgroupings.

Veterans are people who have served in any of the six branches of the U.S. Armed Forces: the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy, and Space Force. When referencing Veterans as a group there are technicalities and pitfalls to be aware of:

  • Active duty service members are not yet Veterans. A common misconception is that any and all members of the U.S. Armed Forces are Veterans. By current statute, a Veteran is a former active duty service member, typically meaning someone who served full-time. Veterans also must have served for an adequate length of time, whether they were deployed or not. However, eligibility for benefits and services is quite complicated. Marketers should recognize this to avoid overgeneralizations that include those still serving. Instead, current members of the U.S. Armed forces are referred to as “military service members,” or “active duty service members.”
  • Former Reservists and National Guard members can be Veterans. The Reserve Component of the U.S. Armed Forces refers to the seven individual Reserve and Guard components, and comprises people who serve a minimum of 39 days of military duty per year and whose service supplements active duty service members when necessary. In 2016, President Obama signed a bill stating that even those former members of the Reserve Component who didn’t achieve active service minimums may refer to themselves as Veterans. It’s important to be aware of the Reserve Component to ensure inclusion and visibility across campaigns.
  • Not every service member or military Veteran is a Soldier. Referring to all service members and Veterans as Soldiers is incorrect, since Soldiers are only Army service members. Understand that each military branch has different terminology to ensure specificity and to avoid inadvertent use of the wrong terms or generic language. Specifically, Soldiers serve or have served in the Army, Sailors in the Navy, Marines in the Marine Corps, Airmen in the Air Force, Coast Guardsmen in the Coast Guard, and Guardians in the Space Force.


The Marine Corps is the only branch which includes the word “corps.” Also note that there is no such thing as a “former” Marine.

When it comes to specifying ranks, it's important to know that only Veterans who have retired after 20 years of service or were medically retired are allowed to retain their rank title. Visit this article from the U.S. Department of Defense to learn more.


Be aware that there are different types of military service. Be as respectful and inclusive as possible when representing different members of the U.S. Veteran community. Most often, the term “Veterans” is appropriate, unless there is a specific need to specify which branch of the military you’re talking to, or about.

Want to learn more?

This military rank and structure resource from the University of Utah shares details about branch specifics and rank.

A note on uniforms

Use caution when showing or portraying active duty service members or Veterans in uniform. Experts recommend avoiding stock photos and videos, and instead using media from the services themselves (like this Marine Corps resource). Follow all protocols outlined by the Department of Defense (DoD) when including DoD visual information in campaigns, like insignia or other military markings on uniforms and other objects. Explore this Public Use Notice of Limitations for more information, and see examples of how this is executed in Grow with Google’s Sword & Plough film.

Include Veterans who are women

Women currently make up 10% of the Veteran community today, and Pew Research projects that the percentage of Veterans who are women will increase to 18% by 2045. As a growing subpopulation, it is necessary to understand the unique experiences of Veterans who are women in order to accurately represent them. The U.S. Armed Forces are still male-dominated and gender discrimination is pervasive; however, employing gender-inclusive language can help create less marginalized environments. Media and marketing can play a vital role in breaking down barriers and increasing inclusion by dismantling stereotypes.

Include intersectional Veterans

The diversity of Veterans is growing more than ever before, and the picture of the Veteran community as a white monolith is outdated. Reflecting wider demographic changes in the U.S., the share of Latino/Latinx Veterans is expected to grow from 7 to 13%, while the share of Black Veterans is expected to increase from 12 to 16%. As participating members of American society, underrepresented Veterans experience the same racial bias and discrimination as nonveterans, both implicit and explicit, and also experience more barriers to accessing Veteran benefit programs.

Although Asian Americans, Indigenous people, and Pacific Islanders make up a smaller percentage of the total Veteran population, a high number of people within the Indigenous and Pacific Islander communities have actively served. Indigenous people have the highest per-capita involvement of any U.S. population serving in the Armed Forces - at five times the national average - and have historically played critical roles in the military, like the American Indian Code Talkers during World War II. It’s important to not overlook their experience and service in the military.


On Veterans Day 2020, the first National Memorial dedicated to Native American Veterans was unveiled at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. to acknowledge the hundreds of thousands of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians currently or previously in the military. It is an important step for underrepresented Veteran visibility.

There are at least 870,000 LGBTQ+ Veterans in the U.S. (about 4% of the Veteran population). Depending on when they served and which policies were in place at the time, LGBTQ+ Veterans (and LGBTQ+ military spouses) will have varied experiences, challenges, and triumphs. Consult experts and individuals from the communities to approach portrayals with authenticity and nuance when representing LGBTQ+ Veterans in marketing.

When developing your campaign

Make sure to understand and represent the intersectional experiences of Veterans and how these form their identity.


Work directly with members of different identities and communities to understand their unique perspectives and gain authentic insights into the lived experiences of underrepresented Veterans.

Portray Veterans as engaged members of the workforce

Avoid perpetuating harmful Veteran stereotypes, such as inaccurate portrayals of Veteran homelessness and unemployment. Always consider whether homelessness or unemployment is relevant to a narrative that includes or highlights Veterans. Instead, portraying Veterans as engaged members of a workforce can help undo harmful misconceptions. Do your research and speak to experts to create marketing that authentically represents reality without perpetuating stereotypes.

Avoid overstating combat and its impacts

Media and marketing tend to emphasize portrayals of combat Veterans even though there are more than 800 roles in the U.S. Armed Forces, ranging from cooks to cyber workers. As a result, Veterans are often stereotyped as “broken heroes” who return to society bearing physical or psychological injury. While Veterans do experience these impacts of service, the notion that every Veteran does is a misconception that harmfully reinforces a “damaged Veteran” image.

With 25% of Veterans experiencing a service-related disability, it is important to include their stories in media and marketing. But tread a fine line. Marketers should always scrutinize the use of combat injury in campaigns and avoid exaggerating physical or psychological injury.

A note on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

While many Veterans, both combat and noncombat, experience a range of PTSD symptoms, it is important to note that a majority of Veterans do not. Marketers should exercise caution when thinking about representing the impact of PTSD in campaigns.


Since PTSD impacts the nonveteran community as well as the Veteran community, it shouldn’t be unnecessarily spotlighted as a Veteran experience. Veterans and nonveterans alike suffer PTSD symptoms from a wide variety of experiences. If including PTSD is vital to the story you’re telling, consider highlighting the stories of Veterans who have overcome post-traumatic stress or PTSD by becoming more resilient (professionals call this “post-traumatic growth”).


You may see people refer to post-traumatic stress instead of “PTSD” or “post-traumatic stress disorder” but note that use of the “d” or “disorder” is a medical term. “Post-traumatic stress” is a concept used frequently by the services to reduce the stigma of experiencing difficulty after trauma, so that individuals will consider getting help. Take extra care to be specific and avoid using the terms interchangeably.

Depict Veterans as contributing members of the community

The truest reflection of the Veteran experience should show them as engaged members of the community. 52% of Veterans say that the military prepared them very well or somewhat well for the transition to civilian life, and many are highly engaged civically. Veterans vote more and give to charity more than nonveterans.


Portrayals of Veterans that fail to properly represent community involvement contribute to inaccurate perceptions. To counter this, spotlight Veteran civic engagement in campaigns. This can help create more meaningful and accurate narratives of Veterans.

Represent Veterans as multidimensional

The truest and most authentic representations of U.S. Veterans should be mindful of over-valorizing service in favor of recognizing that Veterans are skilled, multidimensional citizens who have served their country in a hugely diverse number of roles, and who now live and work among the nonveteran population in a similarly diverse number of contexts.


Media and marketing that normalize the variety of Veteran experiences, both when thinking about active duty service and within civilian life, will better represent authentic Veteran experiences.

Partner with organizations and advocates who champion Veteran empowerment

There is a change in focus from perceiving the Veteran community through a lens of charity to seeing it through one of empowerment, evident in various nonprofit organizations, individual attitudes, and in how the majority of Veterans prefer to be represented. The Veteran empowerment movement includes organizations that look to empower Veterans to continue their service by leveraging their skills and experience. It helps Veterans transition from military to civilian life, while also generating visible impact in nonveteran communities. Do your research to partner with organizations and individuals who can speak to Veteran empowerment.

Build work without stereotypes

Social context


Include a diverse group of Veterans across all military branches, ranks (both officers and enlisted service members), roles, and service/combat areas.

Portray Veterans as engaged members of the workforce and assets to the community.

Show Veterans in a variety of different roles, both during and after their military service. Don’t default to flashback combat scenes or scenes overlaid with dramatic music when portraying Veterans.

Use caution and think twice before commercializing storylines about Veterans returning home, as these moments are deeply personal and can be emotionally and psychologically traumatic for family members. Avoid leaning too heavily on tear-jerker storylines.



Represent Veterans as multidimensional.

Minimize valorization, and avoid stereotyping Veterans as “superhumans.”

Show Veterans as resilient in the face of post-traumatic stress and other apparent and non-apparent injuries, but avoid perpetuating the “broken hero” stereotype.



Include a diverse range of Veterans across all ages, backgrounds, genders, races/ethnicities, ranks (both officers and enlisted service members), socioeconomic statuses, and with and without apparent and non-apparent disabilities.

Watch out for overstated depictions of service-related injuries, either physical or psychological.

Use the actual service media pages for photos and videos — they are public domain and will be correct representations (like this Marine Corps resource).

Go beyond using uniforms as a way to visually depict Veteran status. Ensure you consult with service members to avoid showing unofficial or improper uniform attire (e.g., improper patches and insignia, wearing a hat indoors, etc.). Remember that the service media sites will have approved images. Exercise caution when using stock photos and videos.