FAIRFAX, Va. Saluting the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and honoring veterans of those wars is a key part of Memorial Day activities. That's to be expected.
But come today, and during the rest of the year, will the fighting and the sacrifice fade into the background as Americans' main concerns return to high gasoline prices and presidential election politics?
That's been the pattern in recent months, and there's concern among the troops that it'll happen again.
"Lots of our vets have started to call it 'Forgetistan,"' says Paul Rieckhoff, head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) who served as an infantry platoon leader in Iraq.
Over the past year there's been a steep drop-off in news coverage of the conflicts. That was in tandem with a decline in public awareness of casualty rates and concern about the wars, eclipsed instead by the public's worries about the economy. Such signs that the wars are on the mind of fewer and fewer Americans have prompted efforts by the IAVA and others to bring them into focus for the rest of the country.
Rieckhoff's comments were part of a conference call piped into more than 230 simultaneous "house parties" the group organized across the country this month to view the film "Charlie Wilson's War." The film details U.S. involvement in the Soviet-Afghanistan war in the 1980s. The IAVA hoped that organizing the viewings and a conference call afterward with former Texas congressman Wilson, Rieckhoff and former Marine officer and author Nathaniel Fick taking questions from house party participants would spark discussion about America's current war in Afghanistan.
In a largely symbolic effort in the same vein, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., proposed a war income tax last year to raise more funds for the military and veterans and remind the public of the wars and their costs. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., also proposed a new tax last year that, if adopted, would have taxed anyone not in the military or a veteran to help pay for the war in Iraq.
"Our military is fully engaged in this war, but most of the rest of America is not," Lieberman said from the Senate floor when he proposed the measure. "Five years after Sept. 11, very little has been asked of the American people."
Lack of awareness of the wars leads to a public that can be easily misled, says Frederick Kagan, a resident scholar studying defense issues and military history at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., a conservative think tank.
"To the extent they have been talked to about the war, they are being talked to about the wrong things," says Kagan, who supports the war but faults the Bush administration for emphasizing more shopping trips over sacrifice to the public and the news media for not providing enough context to its war reports.
A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in March found that only 28 percent of adults know the approximate number of military members killed in Iraq (currently about 4,000 U.S. troops). Just seven months earlier, some 54 percent knew how many had died up to that point in Iraq.
At the same time, the News Coverage Index published by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) found that coverage of Iraq hovered between 20 percent and 25 percent of news coverage in the first three months of 2007. But during the first three months of 2008, the Iraq war constituted only 3 percent to 5 percent of all news coverage.
Afghanistan made it into PEJ's weekly survey of the Top 10 news stories only three times this year, never topping 3 percent of the news hole.
Fick, author of a bestselling book about his experiences as a Marine Corps lieutenant in Afghanistan and Iraq, says the scant attention paid to the wars lately has muddled them in many people's minds.
"When I tell people now that I'm going over (to Afghanistan), I think they confuse it with Iraq, frankly," said Fick during the conference call.
But folks like Mary Anne Tomson need no reminding that there are two wars raging. Her son Scott was sent to Afghanistan as part of the Virginia National Guard. Then he served in Kuwait. Now he has volunteered to go to Iraq.
Tomson, who was trained as a nurse at Walter Reed Army Medical Center during the Vietnam War and whose husband is a retired Army colonel, hosted one of the IAVA "house parties."
"As a nation we should know what the costs are and not just once or twice (a year) on Veterans Day and Memorial Day," she said in the midst of a lively discussion about Afghanistan and Iraq among the military and civilian friends gathered in her northern Virginia home. "I get the casualty notifications every day. Every single one I read, (I think) it's not just a family. It's an extended family and community that now has a gaping hole."
Her other son, Brian Tomson, says that for the young adults who are his peers and co-workers at the biotechnology firm where he works, the wars particularly in Afghanistan are a distant thought.
"Afghanistan has definitely gotten lost behind Iraq," he says. "Most of the people I talk to are just like 'get out of (there). That's it."'
Sitting near Brian by the Tomson fireplace is Katie Purcell, a family friend and nutritionist just a few years out of college. Among her friends and co-workers, war is "never brought up," she says. She surfs a Web site daily for news from Afghanistan but says it's much easier to find detailed reports on a scandal involving teen actress Miley Cyrus.
They are the kinds of people the IAVA hopes can act as conduits of information and reminders in their communities about the cost of the wars. "We just want to have a deeper dialogue about one of the most important issues of our time," says Rieckhoff of IAVA.
"Lots of our vets have started to call it 'Forgetistan."'