With war on, Americans have troops in mind

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.

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

More family men and women in the war zone also means more dependents to care for in the wake of combat casualties. The 2,404 men and 55 women killed in Iraq have left an estimated 1,700 children without their parent.

In concluding his second presidential inaugural speech in 1865, Abraham Lincoln spoke of the need "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan."

In that same spirit, Congress this year voted to increase the "death gratuity" for service member survivors from $12,000 to $100,000 and to increase group life insurance payments from $250,000 to $400,000.

Last week, members of Congress heard testimony on the estimated 200,000 homeless veterans. "In the battlefield of life, they are wounded, and we cannot leave them behind," said Rep. Bob Filner (D) of Calif., who convened the forum.

Like other programs in at least three dozen states, the University of Minnesota this fall will begin waiving tuition costs for children of war casualties. "It's our responsibility to watch over the families of those soldiers who have watched over us and paid the ultimate price," said state Rep. Lloyd Cybart (R), an Air Force veteran.

Communities and local businesses around the country are finding ways to bring a bit of home to service members halfway around the world. Earlier this month, Vermonters sent 825 gallons of maple syrup to Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan.

"Memorial Day is about thanking those who are there and honoring those who didn't come back," says Rick Marsh, president of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers' Association. "So we're sending them a little bit of Vermont, a little thank-you."

Soldiers' heartfelt letters

Meanwhile, some Memorial Day services this weekend will bring the war closer to home. At Shiloh National Cemetery in rural Tennessee, a children's choir will sing the National Anthem and military hymns. High school thespians will read last letters sent home by American soldiers.

Among these is one that Marine Cpl. Blake Mounce meant for his wife after his death. Killed last July when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb, he was buried on his 23rd birthday.

"To read that over and to know that he was aware of the danger that might possibly happen and wanted to send that last message to her, that's especially poignant," says Woody Harrell, superintendent of Shiloh National Military Park.

In addition to the parades and speeches, many Americans will observe the official National Moment of Remembrance (one minute at 3 p.m. local time).

Rita Payne, who runs Roman Catholic programs at Fort Campbell, sees a growing reverence for Memorial Day.

"There is a more deepening of faith, of spirituality and just prayerfulness," she says. "People take it upon themselves to do something positive, and prayer seems to be our greatest weapon right now."

Patrik Jonsson in Atlanta, Amy Green in Nashville, and Chris Gaylord in Boston contributed to this report.

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