I've had people say to me, 'Oh. We still have troops in Afghanistan?' —Ami Neiberger-Miller
Most people run marathons to challenge themselves. Maj. George Kraehe runs them to challenge others.
As a member of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors' "Run & Remember Team," the New Mexico Army National Guard officer has participated in 20 races. Most times, as he sweats his way along each 26.2-mile course, flapping against Kraehe's back is the laminated photograph of a service member who has died in what has become our nation's longest war.
The 46-year-old military lawyer from Albuquerque does it to raise money, but also "to be kind of a visible sign that there still are people out there fighting and dying, unfortunately, in these conflicts."
"Because I don't think it's something that is foremost in people's thoughts," he said in a recent telephone interview from Kabul, Afghanistan. "I think you could say that because we have done so well, because we have been a big part of preventing another attack on U.S. soil, it is easier for people to forget we're here."
As the nation approaches its 11th Memorial Day since the United States launched the Global War on Terror, Kraehe and others fear many have done just that.
About 2.2 million U.S. service members have seen duty in the Middle Eastern war zones, many of them veterans of multiple tours. And more than 6,330 have died — nearly 4,500 in Iraq, and more than 1,840 in Afghanistan.
But as striking as those numbers are, fewer Americans today may have a direct connection to the ongoing fighting than during any previous war.
Unlike World War II, when 16 million men and women put on a uniform, less than 1 percent of the nation's population serves in the U.S. military. And unlike Korea or Vietnam, when the threat of imminent draft hung over the head of every physically fit male over the age of 18, only those who have volunteered need worry about being plucked from their routine lives and placed in harm's way.
When retiring Adm. Mike Mullen addressed the West Point graduating class last May, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the new Army officers that he believed most Americans appreciated the military's sacrifices. But, he added, "I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle."
In a survey released shortly after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Pew Research Center found that 84 percent of recent veterans felt the general public has "little or no understanding" of the problems they and their families face. Of the civilians polled, 71 percent agreed.
The same study found that only a third of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 had an immediate family member who had served in the military. When she unveiled a special Gold Star Christmas tree at the White House last year to honor the families of fallen service members, first lady Michelle Obama lamented, "Not every American knows what a Gold Star family is."
"I've had people say to me, 'Oh. We still have troops in Afghanistan?'" says Ami Neiberger-Miller.
The gold star license plate on her car is for her kid brother.
Army Spc. Christopher T. Neiberger was standing in a turret, manning the .50-caliber machine gun, during a run through Baghdad when an improvised explosive device blew apart his Humvee. It was Aug. 6, 2007 — three days after his 22nd birthday.
While those who've lost someone to these wars are not as numerous as in her grandparents' generation, the proliferation of memorial T-shirts, car decals and even tattoos makes the survivors more visible, says Neiberger-Miller.
"I would hope that those things would invite questions," she says. "And what is surprising is how often they don't."
One difference between this war and, say, World War II is that shared sense of purpose, says Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for TAPS.
"My grandparents have stories about rationing and sacrifice and having a victory garden — all of those things Americans did for the war effort," she says. "Here, it's just a different environment. I don't think people feel they've been asked to sacrifice as a group for the war effort."
Rachel Ascione thinks people are aware of what's going on. They often just don't know how to show it.
Her stepbrother, Marine Cpl. Ronald R. Payne Jr., of Lakeland, Fla., died May 8, 2004, when his patrol came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades while searching for a Taliban official outside Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Just 23, he was the Corps' first combat casualty in that country.
Ascione — whose mother married Payne's father when the kids were in kindergarten together — has a sticker on the back window of her car memorializing her brother. Sometimes, she will emerge from a store or restaurant to find a note from a stranger, "thanking me for my brother's sacrifice."
Maj. Kraehe, the marathon runner, is trying to help the rest of us "know" some of these fallen heroes.
In civilian life, Kraehe is an assistant U.S. attorney, husband and father of two boys. When he puts on his uniform with its oak leaf insignia, he is a member of the Judge Advocate General's Corps.
Kraehe learned about the TAPS running program in 2006, during his first deployment, in Iraq. That December, he ran his first memorial race, whimsically dubbed the Honolulu Marathon "Forward." Kraehe and about 200 others ran through the flat desert along the perimeter of Contingency Operations Base Speicher, just north of Tikrit.
He did it in honor of CW2 Ruel Garcia, 34, of Wahiawa, Hawaii, who was killed Jan. 16, 2006, when his AH64D Apache helicopter was shot down over Baghdad.
In 2009, Kraehe made a decision: to run marathons in all 50 states, honoring a native son or daughter in each.
So far, he's made it to races from Arkansas (the Hogeye Marathon) to Wisconsin (the Madison Marathon), and "Rock 'n Roll" runs in both New Orleans and Las Vegas. And although his second deployment — this time to Herat in western Afghanistan — has made achieving his objective more difficult, Kraehe still finds time to honor his fallen comrades.
In October, he hitched a ride on a C-130 cargo plane to run a marathon in Kabul.
A day before the race, a suicide bombing in the city killed seven Americans. So he and the other two dozen participants were confined to the embassy compound.
"The course was a .9-mile loop," he says with a laugh. "So we were just kind of running around in a circle."
Last month, while home on R&R, Kraehe decided to run the Boston Marathon.
Normally, TAPS hooks him up with the family of a fallen service member and obtains a photo. But the organization was unable to find someone in time, so Kraehe chose a young man who'd been killed where he is now serving.
In Boston, when Kraehe began to flag under the day's record heat, he reflected on why he was there.
"They didn't quit," he says. "They gave it their all, literally."