For veterans, symbols of appreciation matter

May 26, 2014

E-5 Sunny Yeung of the Navy visits the grave of a friend, Lt. Cpl. Kevin Adam Lucas, at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day 2011. (Matt McClain – FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

On Monday, Americans will scarf burgers and haggle car salesmen, chase parades and pace through cemeteries. The most visible tributes to those who fought and died in the nation’s wars — the day’s sole purpose — won’t be solemn but symbolic. Raising a flag, singing a national anthem, displaying a yellow ribbon.

Memorial Day may be both sacred and profane, but today’s veterans are not all that cynical about superficial symbols of gratitude. A national survey of those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars conducted last year by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation asked veterans what they feel when they see a yellow ribbon honoring military service. Fully 70 percent said they feel good, while 22 percent said it feels more like an empty gesture. The positive view toward a ubiquitous but shorthand symbol spans military rank and branch, active duty and retired.

Those sentiments match veterans’ broad sense that their nation is grateful. Seventy-one percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans surveyed said they believe the average American appreciates what they’ve done, and 92 percent of post-9/11 veterans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they’ve had people personally thank them for their service.

“Compared to how some of my relatives who served in Vietnam, [it’s] completely different,” said one respondent in a follow-up interview. “The American public, whether they agreed or disagreed, they respected I was under orders to protect their way of life.” The Pew Research survey found that 70 percent of veterans serving before Sept. 11, 2001, said the public has greater respect for the military today than when they served.

Veterans appear to be hearing the public’s message clearly. Americans’ reverence for the military has soared to near-record levels during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Fully 76 percent of the public reported “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military in a 2013 Gallup poll, surpassing respect for small businesses, police and churches.

The mutual positive feelings don’t stand in for deeper understanding, and some veterans are skeptical that Americans’ appreciation goes much beyond lip service. In the Post-Kaiser poll, 53 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans said Americans’ respect for the military is genuine, but more than four in 10 (42 percent) said that “most Americans are just saying things they think people want to hear.”

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Read more stories from the Post’s After the Wars series

A legacy of pain and pride

Cold calculations: How a backlogged VA determines the true cost of war 

About the poll: The Post-Kaiser poll interviewed a random national sample of 819 adults who served in Iraq or Afghanistan since Sept. 11, 2001, including 661 men and 158 women. The results from the survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points overall, five points for men and 11 points for women.

Scott Clement is a survey research analyst for The Washington Post. Scott specializes in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.
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