By Elizabeth L. Robbins
Sunday, November 11, 2007; B07
BAGHDAD -- As the veterans of World War II pass too quickly into history, their ranks are being replaced by a new "greatest generation." The war on terrorism is creating veterans at a rate not seen in decades.
Yet the military is much smaller now than during World War II, leading some analysts to posit that a rift exists between soldiers and citizens and that those making sacrifices on the battle front are disconnected from the society whose freedoms they defend. The American people are oblivious to the war, they claim, as well as to the men and women who are fighting it. Some have even suggested that the only way to close the gap is to return to conscription.
But these observers of the social scene have never served in Iraq.
Those of us overseas know that "support the troops" is more than a slogan. Here we are besieged by what my master sergeant calls "paper love," the cards, letters, posters and other gestures of support sent by people across America. The paper love is often accompanied by packages of snacks and comfort items. Some mail comes from family members, but even more is sent by private citizens and troop support organizations. The war has inspired a remarkable level of civic involvement that goes largely unnoticed -- except by those of us in the field or recovering stateside.
All of us are volunteers. We're in Iraq because we want to serve. We are well educated and physically fit and could have pursued a variety of other life options. But, to paraphrase Defense Secretary Robert Gates, we are driven by the romantic and optimistic ideal that we can improve the world. We are seeing real progress on the ground, and we are helping Iraq to change.
Idealism, however, does not diminish our longing for home or the pain of missing family. It does not dispel all fear and doubt, and it does not heal our wounded or fallen friends. So when we are feeling disheartened, we open the care packages and read the letters.
"Thank you for helping to protect our country . . . we admire your courage!" writes a child from Congregation Beth Am in Buffalo Grove, Ill.
"Thank you! Enjoy the coffee!" writes Starbucks of Gig Harbor, Wash.
"May the Lord give you safety and watch over you," writes Millie from the Yellow Ribbon Support Center of Cincinnati.
"Happy Thanksgiving!" writes Brownie Troop 250 from Christ Lutheran Church of Valencia, Calif.
Cynics might think these expressions of goodwill from strangers are hokey, but they are tacked on the walls of nearly every workspace, living area and hospital ward in Iraq.
This past May, a young soldier received several hundred tributes drawn by children at McNair Elementary School in Herndon, Va., where his mother does volunteer work. He taped them up along a hallway at Multi-National Force-Iraq headquarters, forming the letters T-H-A-N-K Y-O-U.
Members of our coalition partners' armed forces congregated in the hallway looking at the posters with wonder. They asked passersby, "American children send these to you? They are so beautiful!" Some shook their heads and confessed that they were stunned at the support we enjoy from our people back home.
Contrast this with a September statement by Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff of the British army: "In America, the appreciation for the armed forces is outstanding, and, frankly, I would like to be able to mirror some of that here. In the States, many companies offer military discounts for serving soldiers, sports teams give out free tickets, people in the street shake the hand of men in uniform."
We have come a long way from the dark days during Vietnam, when people would spit on our men and women in uniform. Those of us serving today have great faith in the American people, and apparently the feeling is mutual. It is comforting that today's veterans will return to civilian life remembering the warmth and support of Americans living comfortably back home while they served in difficult circumstances overseas.
So thank you from us future veterans. Thanks for saying thanks.
Elizabeth L. Robbins, an Army major, deployed in May in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The views expressed here are her own.