“The servicemen and women were regarded as heroes,” said David Saltzman, who organized the spring fundraiser.
A senior military officer at the gala, also attended by the Joint Chiefs then-chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, saw the troops’ role differently.
“They were rolled out like some sort of orphan kid,” the officer wrote in an e-mail. “I’m sure the organizers meant well. I know they did. But it wasn’t respect, really. It was pity.”
The starkly conflicting impressions illustrate the uneasy relationship that has taken hold between the military and an often distant, sometimes adoring American public.
The troops are lavished with praise for their sacrifices. But the praise comes with a price, service members say. The public increasingly acts as if it feels sorry for those in uniform.
“We aren’t victims at all,” said Brig. Gen. Sean B. MacFarland, who commanded troops in Iraq and will soon leave for Afghanistan. “But it seems that the only way that some can be supportive is to cast us in the role of hapless souls.”
The topic is a sensitive one for military leaders, who do not want to appear ungrateful or at odds with the public they serve. They also realize that the anger that returning troops faced in the latter years of the Vietnam War was far worse.
As a result, most of the conversations about pity take place quietly and privately among combat veterans. After his two sons returned from combat tours with the Marines, retired Col. Mark Cancian warned them that people outside the military would view their service from two perspectives.
Some would look at them with a sense of awe because they faced down insurgents and traveled to exotic places. Others would wonder whether there was an “angry, violent veteran beneath the surface,” said Cancian, who fought in Iraq and returned to a senior government job in Washington.
During his job search, he said, he sensed that some interviewers had subtly inquired whether he would be able to hold up under the strain of a demanding Washington job immediately after his combat tour.
“When you talk about your service, you need to counter the negative impressions,” Cancian recalled telling his sons.
The military’s unease springs, in part, from American indifference to the wars. Battlefield achievements are rarely singled out for praise by a country that has little familiarity with the military and sees little direct benefit from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
“We, as a nation, no longer value military heroism in ways that were entirely common in World War II,” said retired Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Instead, praise from politicians and the public focuses largely on the depth of a service member’s suffering. Troops are recognized for the number of tours they have endured, the number of friends they have lost or the extent of their injuries.