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With war on, Americans have troops in mind

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 2006

Americans will still fire up their barbecues, watch parades, and go camping this weekend. But for the first time in a generation, Memorial Days are coming during prolonged armed conflict. That has strengthened ties between civilians and soldiers, bringing a marked change in the way people will observe the holiday this year.

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Politicians of all persuasions are pushing for better veterans' services, including healthcare for the living and survivors' benefits for those who've lost loved ones. Many states are now providing free tuition at public colleges and universities for the children of those killed in war zones.

Since terrorists attacked the United States in 2001, communities around the country have begun to bring back traditional Memorial Day ceremonies - many of them featuring Iraq war vets.

It's part of growing public interest in military affairs, historians say. And this time, unlike in the Vietnam era, declining support for the war has not eroded backing for the troops, say many of those taking part in Memorial Day cer- emonies.

Gainesville, Ga., started having parades again in 2003. On Monday, about 700 veterans, police officers, firefighters, marching bands, baton twirlers, and Boy Scouts will march up Green Street, a shady lane bordered by antebellum homes. Charlie Company of the local National Guard unit, recently returned from Iraq, will serve as honorary grand marshal.

"We just decided that it was time to bring it back with the main thing being just to honor our veterans," says organizer Cheryl Vandiver, whose son is an Iraq war veteran.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., the Command Post Military Museum, which was started to commemorate World War II, now includes the current conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan. While "reenacters" will dress as soldiers from earlier wars this weekend, recently returned Iraq war GI's will bring real-life immediacy to the displays of uniform and military gear.

"What we try to impress upon students, especially with the current conflict going on, is that we're not here to glorify war," says museum curator and former middle-school history teacher Louis Varnell. "We don't want to lose sight of the fact that war itself is terrible."

Many of those involved with Memorial Day ceremonies see a marked difference with the last era of sustained US military combat abroad.

Despite mounting criticism of the war in Iraq, American support of troops serving there has not waned, says Jerry Rivers, director of veterans' services in Montgomery County, Tenn., which is near Fort Campbell, home to the US Army's 101st Airborne Division. "We wanted to make sure at least in our community that they weren't treated as poorly as those guys that served in Vietnam."

Part of this post-Vietnam urge to separate the warrior from the war has to do with the portrait of the typical soldier today. Unlike his or her father, who probably would have gone to Vietnam right out of school, today's GI is more likely to be older, to be married, and to have children. Especially among those in National Guard or Reserve units, he or she is likely to have strong work and community connections.

Taking care of soldiers' families