“Give a warm welcome to brave servicemen and women and their families joining us tonight,” the stadium announcer intoned. Now the troops were on the big screen in center field, and the modest Tuesday night crowd was standing, hooting and cheering.
Sgt. Anthony Verra, who lost both legs and part of his right hip when he stepped on a buried bomb last year, waved his complimentary Nationals cap. His wife, Shauna, held their 1-year-old daughter on her hip and gently rubbed her husband’s shoulder. Behind them, a 19-year-old private first class, injured by a mine two months earlier, balanced on trembling legs. His right hand was curled and twitchy. He gazed up at the half-empty stadium and cried.
The applause lasted for 63 seconds.
“Thank you, members of the United States military, for your service,” the announcer concluded.
The troops returned to their seats. The crowd returned to the game. The Nationals trailed the Braves by one run.
After almost 10 years of fighting, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq surface on the home front in fleeting, sentimental and sanitized glimpses. Camouflage-clad soldiers lug rucksacks through civilian airports at the beginning and end of their leaves. Their service is celebrated in occasional television commercials, dutifully praised by political candidates and briefly cheered at sporting events.
Troops often question why more have not answered the call to duty and why their sacrifices are so poorly understood by the people they serve.
“For most Americans, the wars remain an abstraction,” then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last year. “A distant, unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally.”
In the fifth inning at Nationals Park, Courtney Knolle, a 40-year-old mother of three, was walking past the troops from Walter Reed. She locked eyes on Verra, who was watching the game from his wheelchair with his wife and two children.
A part-time tutor and former kindergarten teacher, Knolle noticed that Verra’s 9-year-old son looked to be about the same age as her eldest. She wondered how Verra had been hurt and how the soldier’s son was handling the injury. She was curious to know whether Verra and his fellow soldiers were getting the best care the country could afford. Like a growing number of Americans, she worried that the war in Afghanistan had become a “losing battle.”
She did not share any of those thoughts with Verra. Instead, Knolle approached Verra and touched his arm.
“Thank you for your service,” she said.
The expression has become commonplace, but Knolle felt good about saying it. Verra simply nodded. Knolle returned to her seat.
Later, Verra said he appreciated Knolle’s gesture. But he wondered, as he often does in such situations, how long she had stared at him before saying something.