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Iraq and Afghanistan: America's invisible wars

After seven years in Iraq and nine in Afghanistan, residents of York, Pa., talk about how the wars have become like a screen saver: always there but rarely acknowledged.

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It is a town of little ostentation with modest brick and frame homes in tidy neighborhoods, an old fashioned farmers' market (with a heavy Amish flavor), and major roads lined with all the familiar chain stores and restaurants. The city, once a stage for ugly race relations, recently elected its first African-American mayor. The city leans Democratic in a county that tends to go Republican.

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Like many towns in America, York was a manufacturing city, but it had a knack for building big, heavy things. Safes were made there. And farming equipment. Tanks and ordnance as well. Perhaps the most iconic sight in York is the statue along Interstate 83 of a man holding a barbell above his head at York Barbell. Caterpillar closed up shop a decade ago, and Harley-Davidson is shutting its plant there, too.

The town honors its military past with markers or monuments commemorating wars all the way back to the Revolution. In Continental Square, it even acknowledges the city's dubious distinction of being the largest Northern city to surrender to the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Craig Trebilcock is a York lawyer in the Army Reserve who was in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, during the invasion and early reconstruction. To his delight, upon his return home, he found an "incredible" amount of goodwill directed toward his generation of soldiers.

"There is none of this Vietnam War reception when you come home," he says. "When you come home, you are treated like a hero, and your family's sacrifice is definitely recognized."

But over time, after his return, he came to realize that the goodwill did not necessarily mean that the wars those soldiers were fighting figured prominently in the psyche of the people of York.

"The war doesn't affect anyone," he says, referring to the two wars, as many do, as though they are one. "The town really prides itself on the York Plan from World War II, and every family was involved in Victory gardens and bond drives and collections for the defense industries."

But that is far removed from what he sees around York today. "It's a consequence of the way we go to war these days. It doesn't affect the general community, whether it's York or Des Moines or anywhere else," he says. "It's a volunteer Army, so there isn't a general sacrifice at a personal or economic level. There's no rationing. We're an affluent country. We can go fight two wars at the same time, and most people don't even feel a pinprick."

"Frankly," he adds, "I don't think the average person thinks about these wars at all. They're more concerned about what's going on in 'Lost' or who's winning 'American Idol' than what the country is doing overseas."

His wife, Terrie, a high school history teacher, feels the same way. Although she says she received support from family and close friends when Craig was in Iraq, she was surprised how others reacted upon learning she was the spouse of a deployed soldier. "The reaction you get from people you don't know very well – it's almost as though you have a disease, as though they were worried that I'm going to ask something of them," she says.

At her children's school, she was disappointed to find officials flummoxed by her desire that her kids be excused when the school broadcast television news about the war.

To her surprise, she finds the most consistent engagement in the wars among the students at Hereford High School, across the border in Maryland, where she teaches.One group, "For Our Troops," sends care packages to troops, organizes ongoing memorials to two of its alumni killed in Iraq, and even drafted model legislation limiting protests near soldiers' funerals. (Members of an antigay Kansas church had infamously demonstrated at the funeral of a Maryland soldier.)