Salute to US troops from those at home
To Master Sgt. Ann Weih-Clark there is something different about this war. She was in the military during the first Gulf War, and though she has not deployed to Iraq since the current conflict began, her National Guard office in downtown Baltimore has, in many respects, afforded the best view of what has changed.
Throughout the first Gulf War, she says, she was just an anonymous soldier - unnoticed amid the bustle of her neighbors' daily lives. Today, however, she is a celebrity - and not just on Memorial Day.
When Sergeant Weih-Clark is in uniform, hardly a lunch goes by without someone offering thanks, and when she organizes events for troops and their families, she has a tough time paying for anything - local businesses cover all the costs. "The support from the community has been incredible," says the Maryland National Guard's family-support liaison.
In the past, Americans' views of their soldiers have in large part depended on their support for the mission, either to the glory of World War II's so-called Greatest Generation or to the rancor that greeted troops returning from Vietnam. Today, however, even as Americans' support for the war in Iraq ebbs and flows, support for the troops has remained steadfast.
The change in attitude suggests a shift, as Americans increasingly separate the men and women in combat from their own opinions about the rightness of the mission, with antiwar protesters even donating Kevlar body armor to soldiers in Iraq.
It is, in part, a determination not to repeat the Vietnam experience. Yet nearly four years after Sept. 11, it also reflects a changed image of American troops as defenders of a vulnerable homeland, while the deployment of tens of thousands of Guard and Reserve "citizen soldiers" lends a human face to the canteens and camouflage.
"People are saying, 'Regardless of what my political opinion is, we have to stand behind the troops,' " says Ida Hägg, executive director of AdoptaPlatoon, which helps civilians send aid to soldiers and their units. "People are so divided about Iraq, yet they have still come together to help the troops."
For instance, airline passengers have donated more than 540 million frequent-flier miles to a program that pays for solders' flights home during leave. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., began its annual Soldier Design Competition in 2003 to encourage students to design technology to help soldiers. And the founders of Military Families Speak Out recall a chant of "Support our troops" breaking out during an antiwar rally in Boston.
"The antiwar movement is very aware of not being painted into a corner," says cofounder Charley Richardson. "This is not about opposing soldiers. It's about opposing the war."
Ms. Hägg has seen these sentiments firsthand in her organization, which includes 80 volunteer mothers from across the United States. As a rule, they vow not to talk politics, or else "it would divide us," she says. The greater cause for her and her fellow volunteers - no matter what they think of the war - is helping soldiers any way they can, from sending picante sauce to spice up military meals to making sure every private, sergeant, and major has a clean pair of underwear.
The response from Americans, she adds, "is fabulous." For more than three months after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the organization received about 13,000 e-mails every half hour from civilians asking how they could help the troops. In fact, Americans have sent so many unsolicited donations and packages to troops on the front lines, that the Pentagon has asked everyone who is not the friend or relation of a soldier to stop.
Hägg still remembers the stories of soldiers being verbally abused and even spat upon when they returned from Vietnam. "I don't think the American people want Vietnam to repeat itself," she says.
Yet for many Americans, something more than guilt is also at work. When Weih-Clark was recently setting up a farewell for members of the Maryland National Guard as they prepared to deploy for Iraq, local businesses stepped in to make sure everything was taken care of. Retail stores gave her gift cards to spend on anything in the store, and the local bakery doubled her order free of charge. "I didn't have to pay for anything," she says.
"They didn't have to do that, they didn't know any of those [soldiers]," she adds. "It might sound like a little thing, but for soldiers and their families, it means everything to know they have support."
Even Weih-Clark herself gets stopped on the street and in restaurants by well-wishers. "I never had anybody walk up to me" during the first Gulf War, she says.
In some ways, the unstinting support for the troops is unique to this conflict. Guard and Reserve troops have borne an unusual portion of the fighting burden, which has spread the war's personal impact far beyond military bases.
"It's touching every community," says David Segal, a sociologist at the University of Maryland at College Park. "It's literally their sons and daughters, husbands and fathers."
Moreover, the military has changed since Vietnam, when many soldiers were drafted into service against their will. Today every soldier joined as a volunteer. That fact not only lends troops an air of nobility - especially after Sept. 11 - it also means they may be less likely to spin out of control.
Incidents of alleged abuse and lawlessness marred the image of Vietnam veterans, experts say. And while more stories like that of Abu Ghraib could still emerge and change opinions of this new group of warriors, Americans this time around want to embrace their troops, not convict them.
Says Morten Ender, a sociologist at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.: "They know that a lack of support can have profound effects on soldiers."