David Goldman/AP
Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran US Army Chaplain Capt. Kevin Peek, right, and Georgia Tech senior Evan Harrison, observe a moment of prayer to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, during a ceremony on the school's campus Tuesday, in Atlanta.

9/11: US troops today feel more appreciated, but still poorly understood

Eleven years after 9/11 there are more frequent overt expressions of support for US troops. But with so few Americans in uniform, military families say, the true cost of service is little understood.

Eleven years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – and more than a decade after America’s longest war began – the troops still fighting overseas say they feel a greater appreciation than ever for the work they do.

On the anniversary of 9/11 and throughout the year, they get standing ovations at sports stadiums and robust applause on airplanes.

But whether most Americans actually understand what members of the armed forces do or share in their sacrifice, they add, is another matter.

“I fear they do not know us,” retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a 2011 address to West Point’s graduating class.

“I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle.” 

Clearly, it’s not from lack of compassion in the American public, Mr. Mullen and others are quick to stress. But the standing ovations and care packages for troops – while well intended – often only reinforce the impression among military families and spouses that a wide gulf of understanding separates them from the rest of America. 

A big reason for the divide is the oft-quoted statistic – particularly among troops – that less than 1 percent of Americans currently serve in the military. More precisely, during this decade of sustained warfare, only about half a percent of the US public has been on active duty at any given time. (At the height of World War II, the comparable figure was 9 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.) 

In a survey released in May by Blue Star Families, a military advocacy group, an overwhelming majority of the 4,200 military respondents and their loved ones – 95 percent – said they agreed with the statement that most Americans “do not truly understand or appreciate the sacrifices made by the service members and their families.” 

Another 40 percent said that their community “did not embrace opportunities to help military children.” 

The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks offers an opportunity for Americans to reach out to military service members, and that is very much appreciated, says Vivian Greentree, the director of research and policy at Blue Star Families. But the message doesn't always get through to those who need it, she adds. 

“It’s important to be reflective, but it’s even more important to take action,” she says. 

For example, Rebekah Sanderlin, whose Army husband is stationed at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., recalls going to a concert in Nashville, Tenn., with her mom last year. The stadiumgoers got on their feet to cheer the troops. “I just started crying, and my mom couldn’t understand why. She said, ‘They do this all the time.’ ”

The problem was, Ms. Sanderlin didn’t know that. Few troops actually go to events like this, says Sanderlin, who writes the blog “Operation Marriage,” about her experience as a military mother and spouse.

“I think there’s this idea in the civilian world that ‘We’re showing all this support – we do this all the time,’ ” she says. “But places where the big military bases are – like Fayetteville – these are small towns without big events. And most military families cannot afford to go to these big events.” 

And even for those who can, the daily business of caring for children while one spouse is at war means “anything outside of daily survival” often becomes “too much of a hassle.” 

She points, too, to another gesture troops appreciate, but which is also a secret pet peeve among soldiers, who quietly joke about it: care packages often hopelessly out of date.

They contain baby wipes and other items that troops have been able to buy at base exchanges in Iraq and Afghanistan for at least half a decade, as well as candy that often offers unwelcome temptation for troops trying to keep their weight down in a war zone.

While such care packages represent a great deal of kindness, they may also contribute to the disconnect troops feel from the civilian world, she posits. “The person who needs to feel supported doesn’t feel that way, and the person sending the package doesn’t realize their efforts are maybe not the best use of resources.”

Instead, Sanderlin says, there are other causes that benefit troops and their families. With many marriages struggling in the wake of multiple deployments, “If someone wants to donate money to a good cause,” she suggests marriage retreats. 

She also recommends a group called “Give an Hour,” in which counselors donate their time to troops.

For her part, Dr. Greentree, who is also a military spouse, says that the 9/11 commemorations remind her of the “amazing sense of solidarity and community that can arise from tragedy – and that it’s up to us to sustain it.” 

She points to the military ethos, and the community it has engendered. “In the military, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. So if there is a weak link, we figure out how to fix it, how to keep their heads above water – whatever you need to do to rally around that person, because that is the strength of your unit.”

It is a way of life that she hopes inspires the civilian world. “I don’t think people have to understand what it is to be in the military, or to be a military family,” she says. “I don’t understand what it is to be a doctor’s family or a teacher’s family. But I do know that I have a role to play in the success or failure in my community.”

In the military more than a decade after 9/11, the hardship has also led to “a social capital that binds us,” Greentree says. “That’s a very positive thing that has come out of the tragedy, and out of 10 years of war.” 

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