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A war that continues to claim service members' lives, to little attention from many citizens

On Memorial Day, a chance to bridge the growing civilian-military divide.

On Memorial Day, Marissa Martinez Brown will join thousands on a beach in Honolulu to float lighted lanterns, each bearing a remembrance of a loved one lost over the years, into the water.

While Brown, 43, will be in a crowd Monday, in many ways her grief is increasingly a lonely one. Her husband died in December from wounds suffered in a suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan the month before.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Allan E. Brown, 46, of Takoma Park is a casualty of a war that in its 16th year is America's longest, and yet one that much of the public has tuned out, even before combat operations were declared over in 2014.

"It was supposed to be over," Marissa Brown said. "I don't think it will ever be over.

"More people should understand what's going on in our world."

But mostly, they don't.

The personal toll of war falls on a tiny fraction of the country. Less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military, down from 9 percent at the height of World War II, according to the Pew Research Center. Additionally, military service is concentrated rather than dispersed across society, Pew reported: Veterans are more likely than the general public to have relatives who also were in the armed forces.

"One percent of citizens bear the burden of war, and we stand on the sidelines and we cheer, but we have no responsibility," said Andrew Bacevich, a professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University who has written extensively about the civilian-military divide. "I think it's an outrage."

Bacevich, it should be noted, is not part of that collective "we." A West Point graduate and Vietnam combat veteran who served 23 years in the Army before retiring as a colonel, he lost his only son in 2007 to the Iraq War, which he vocally opposed.

The gap between civilians and soldiers began widening in the 1970s, Bacevich said, when at a time of anti-war and anti-military sentiment the United States ended the draft in favor of an all-volunteer Army.

Esteem for the military has since rebounded, with the first Bush administration's admonishment to Americans during the 1991 Persian Gulf War to "Support Our Troops," and the rallying effect of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Now Americans are faced with a disconnect, Bacevich said. They support the troops — often showily, with flag ceremonies at sporting events — but feel little obligation to help fill their ranks and fight what seems like a war without end.

"There are increasing numbers of Americans uncomfortable with that," he said.

But there's no support for bringing back the draft, he said, and only occasional calls to require young people to perform some kind of service, civilian or military, to the country.

"That gets bandied about from time to time," Bacevich said. "But it has not gained political traction."

He sees one other option.

"Perhaps we have to reduce our appetite for war," Bacevich said.

Memorial Day remains a time to honor fallen military members from all conflicts. Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium will host its 50th annual statewide Memorial Day ceremony Monday.

Allan Brown, who grew up in Takoma Park but moved to Hawaii in the 1990s, is among the four service members with ties to the state who will be honored. He was injured in a Nov. 12 suicide bomb attack on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan; he died Dec. 6 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda.

The others are:

•Airman 1st Class Nathaniel H. McDavitt, 22, of Glen Burnie, who died in Jordan on April 15, 2016, from injuries he suffered when extremely high winds partially collapsed a hangar in which he was working;

•Pvt. 1st Class Victor J. Stanfill, 19, of Fulton, a member of the 101st Airborne Division who died May 10, 2016, of injuries suffered during a live-fire training exercise at Fort Polk, La.;

•Staff Sgt. Adam S. Thomas, 31, of Takoma Park, a Special Forces medic killed Oct. 4 by an improvised explosive device in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan.

A fifth service member, Special Forces Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, 37, of Edgewood was killed April 8 in a clash with Islamic State fighters, also in Nangarhar province. The 1998 graduate of Joppatowne High School will be honored at next year's Dulaney Valley ceremony, organizers said.

His father, Joao De Alencar, 68, is a veteran himself, of the first Gulf War, and was stationed in Germany when his son was born. The family eventually moved to Maryland, where Joao De Alencar worked at Aberdeen Proving Ground and as a Baltimore police officer before retiring.

He plans to travel from his home in Cumberland to Arlington National Cemetery to spend Memorial Day at his son's grave site.

He remembers Skyping with his son a few days before he was killed.

"Don't be a hero," De Alencar said he told him. "He said he was OK, he was well trained and didn't fear anything."

But then the call came from Mark De Alencar's wife, Natasha, who also had gone to Joppatowne High. She lives in Florida, where he had been based before deploying to Afghanistan and they were raising a family of five children.

"I cried," Joao De Alencar said simply. "I try not to think about it, because it makes me sad."

Still, he hopes others will take the time Monday to remember.

"The American public has a tendency to forget," he said.

For the family of Adam Thomas, Memorial Day has always been a time of remembrance.

"Such a small percentage of Americans served in any part of the military, [they] don't have that personal connection," said his mother, Candace Thomas.

"My husband and I are both children of veterans, so we were raised to treat this day properly," she said.

"This first one will be tough."

The couple lives in Marshall, Minn., where she directs a literacy program and he is an accounting professor at Southwest Minnesota State University. But they lived in Silver Spring when Adam was born.

Adam Thomas graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., in 2007 and then moved to Takoma Park. A rugby player and All-American swimmer in college, he followed the career of fellow Marylander Michael Phelps, his mother said.

His parents were surprised when he decided to join the Army in 2008, Candace Thomas said, but supported him and remembered his joy at becoming a Green Beret.

"It was one of the happiest times of his life," she said.

The Pentagon said Adam Thomas was on patrol with Afghan soldiers in Nangarhar as part of a counterterrorism mission when they were struck by a roadside bomb. Thomas was the first U.S. soldier killed in a counter-ISIS operation in Afghanistan.

Candace Thomas said she has been moved by the outpouring of support since her son's death, not only from her small Midwestern town but also from Maryland. She received a note from Gov. Larry Hogan. The Army, particularly the Special Forces command, have stayed in close touch, she said.

"They don't forget you," she said.

In Hawaii, Marissa Brown will remember the man she met half her lifetime ago, when they were in their 20s and attending college. They were married 16 years, and were stationed most recently at Fort Hood, Texas, where he was part of the 1st Cavalry Division. They did not have children.

Allan Brown, who had deployed three times to Iraq and one previous time to Afghanistan, assured his wife that he would be safe at Bagram Air Base.

"He reassured me he was in the safest place in Afghanistan, that there was nothing to worry about, the security is tight," she said. "Allan thought he would be coming home."

But on Nov. 12, as soldiers were preparing for an organized run on the base, a suicide bomber struck. The Pentagon said the attacker was a local contractor who worked on the base.

"I was so heartbroken," Marissa Brown said. "He worked with these people."

Her husband was airlifted to Germany, and she flew there to be with him. He was in a medically induced coma, she said, but she spoke with him nonetheless.

"I don't know if he heard me, but I told him I was there to take him home and to hold on," she said.

He was flown to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, but succumbed to his injuries on Dec. 6.

"He fought so hard to stay alive," she said.

Two other U.S. soldiers and two U.S. contractors were also killed in the attack.

Marissa Brown, who has moved back home to Hawaii to be closer to family, plans a quiet Monday, participating in the lantern float on Ala Moana Beach organized by a Buddhist group.

"Memorial Day is not the beginning of summer. It's not a day to have barbecues and drink as much as you want," said Marissa Brown. "You're there to memorialize all the fallen soldiers who have protected our borders, our freedom, so we can have barbecues and enjoy life and live freely."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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