This is the last Veterans Day that America will mark with combat troops still stationed in Afghanistan, and the country's sense of apathy over that war and those still fighting it has only grown over a dozen years of conflict.
Americans still readily and publicly display respect and appreciation for the troops. All of the first-class passengers on a recent American Airlines flight from Chicago to San Diego voluntarily moved back to coach so soldiers could fly up front. But polls show that Americans long ago stopped believing the war was worthwhile, and their growing apathy has trickled down to the treatment of the troops themselves.
As the last of the troops make their way back home through 2014, veterans will be returning to a bleak future, one where mental-health problems, unemployment, homelessness and a backlog of disability claims present stark challenges.
Unemployment for post-9/11 veterans remains in double digits and much higher than the overall national average. Twenty-two vets commit suicide each day. And a bureaucratic backlog at the Department of Veterans Affairs has left nearly half a million vets stuck waiting for their disability claims to snake through the system.
Twenty out of every 10,000 Americans are homeless. Among vets, the number jumps to 29 — or nearly 50-percent higher.
But in raising these concerns, veterans have also found themselves fighting a dangerous stereotype: that they're "scary", as one veteran puts it, or that they're plagued by mental-health problems that render them unreliable.
"The public doesn’t know how to approach the veteran community," said Tegan Griffith, a former Marine now working for Wisconsin's Department of Veterans Affairs. "We're not fragile individuals, by any means.”
The key, Griffith says, is to connect with other veterans through the multitude of organizations available to them. "Veterans need to connect with each other," she said. "Get out of your shell, and don't be afraid to ask for help."
In turn, many veterans’ organizations have gone out of their way to project vets as capable, resilient leaders who are typically fit physically.
Part of the problem is the gap between those who have served and those who haven't. Over the last decade, a mere 0.5 percent of Americans served on active duty, compared to 9 percent during World War II.
"The war is not a part of most Americans' everyday reality,” said Jeff Hensley, a veteran who now works at Hooves for Heroes, a program that provides "equine therapy" for vets. “There's hardly anything in the news anymore about what's going on in Afghanistan.”
Both veterans and those working on veteran’s issues see a growing public sense of apathy towards those who served in the military.
People are increasingly aware of society’s obligation to vets, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Legislative Director Alex Nicholson said. But on the other hand, they are also increasingly prone to “tokenism.”
“You also see an increase in tokenism, the check-the-box approach to honoring the vets,” Nicholson said. “[They] say 'Thank you for your service' and think that's sufficient, without realizing it takes a lot more than an expression of appreciation."
As veterans groups fight for relevance, they are also fighting for financial survival at a time when many Americans would prefer not to think about war.
"There are some signs that [donor fatigue] has already begun, and it's only going to increase" as time passes and the troops come home, Hensley said. "There's some fatigue from the public on supporting veteran's issues. We're in the 12th year. This is the longest period of sustained combat that this country has been in.”
In Congress, veterans’ organizations are lobbying for legislation that would protect vets in the event of another government shutdown by advance funding all Department of Veterans Affairs activities. About 15 percent of the agency's budget is subject to congressional appropriations and when the government shut down in October, the VA's non-health care services were disrupted.
"It basically takes the uncertainty out of our provision of VA benefits, on our commitment to provide these services," Nicholson said.
The funding legislation enjoys broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America is also trying to get Congress to adjust GI Bill benefits. If schools accept GI Bill funding, Nicholson argued, they should give veterans the cheaper in-state tuition rates, since military service members are constantly moving around.
Despite challenges, veterans say they're getting strong support from the growing number of groups organized to help them.
"The level of support has gotten greater … mostly due to organizations that have incorporated a lot of newly-returned veterans,” Griffith said. “The support has gotten up because they recognize our capabilities and what we're capable of doing."