After 10 years of war, the vast majority of post-Sept. 11 veterans say the public does not understand the problems faced by those in the military and by their families. The public largely agrees but believes there's nothing unfair about the outsize burden being shouldered by veterans.
The findings are part of a broad new study by the Pew Research Center that documents a growing gap between civilians and a military force that has been put under intense strain over the past decade. According to the study, 84 percent of veterans believe the rest of the country has little or no understanding of the problems faced by the military. Seventy-one percent of the public shares that assessment.
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"When it comes to their armed forces, most Americans in the post-9/11 era have feelings of pride, gratitude and confidence," the study concludes. "At the same time, most Americans acknowledge they know little about the realities of military service. And, in increasing numbers, they disapprove of or do not pay attention to the wars the military is currently fighting."
Less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has been on active military duty at any given time during the past decade. For many Americans, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been seen only in glimpses, in a newspaper or on television.
For many veterans, however, the wars have meant incredible strains that have lasted long beyond their deployments. Roughly 44 percent of post-9/11 veterans say their readjustment to civilian life was difficult, according to the Pew study. By contrast, 25 percent of veterans who served in earlier eras said the same.
Nearly four in 10 said that they believe they have suffered from post-traumatic stress, regardless of whether it has been formally diagnosed.
At a time when increasing numbers of veterans are returning home, the disconnect between the military and civilians has alarmed officials at the Defense Department.
Earlier this year, Adm. Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, lamented that "America doesn't know its military and the United States military doesn't know America." Before his retirement, Defense Secretary Robert Gates also said he worried that the wars have remained an "abstraction" for most Americans, a "distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally."
There's little indication that the public has a problem with that.
More than 80 percent of respondents said that members of the military and their families have had to make great sacrifices over the decade. But among those who saw those sacrifices as being greater than the public's, seven in 10 saw nothing "unfair" in the disparity.
Rather, the study said, they agree that "it's just part of being in the military."