By ALLEN G. BREED, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Most people run marathons to challenge themselves. Maj. George Kraehe runs them to challenge others.

As a member of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors' "run & remember team," the New Mexico Army National Guard officer has participated in 20 races. Most times, as he sweats his way along each 26.2-mile course, flapping against Kraehe's back is the laminated photograph of a service member who has died in what has become our nation's longest war.

The 46-year-old military lawyer from Albuquerque does it to raise money, but also "to be kind of a visible sign that there still are people out there fighting and dying, unfortunately, in these conflicts."

"Because I don't think it's something that is foremost in people's thoughts," he said in a recent telephone interview from Kabul, Afghanistan. "I think you could say that because we have done so well, because we have been a big part of preventing another attack on U.S. soil, it is easier for people to forget we're here."

As the nation approaches its 11th Memorial Day since the United States launched the Global War on Terror, Kraehe and others fear many have done just that.

About 2.2 million U.S. service members have seen duty in the Middle Eastern war zones, many of them veterans of multiple tours. And more than 6,330 have died – nearly 4,500 in Iraq, and more than 1,840 in Afghanistan.

But as striking as those numbers are, fewer Americans today may have a direct connection to the ongoing fighting than during any previous war.

Unlike World War II, when 16 million men and women put on a uniform, less than 1 percent of the nation's population serves in the U.S. military. And unlike Korea or Vietnam, when the threat of imminent draft hung over the head of every physically fit male over the age of 18, only those who have volunteered need worry about being plucked from their routine lives and placed in harm's way.

When retiring Adm. Mike Mullen addressed the West Point graduating class last May, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the new Army officers that he believed most Americans appreciated the military's sacrifices. But, he added, "I fear they do not know us. I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle."

In a survey released shortly after the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the Pew Research Center found that 84 percent of recent veterans felt the general public has "little or no understanding" of the problems they and their families face. Of the civilians polled, 71 percent agreed.

The same study found that only a third of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 had an immediate family member who had served in the military. When she unveiled a special Gold Star Christmas tree at the White House last year to honor the families of fallen service members, first lady Michelle Obama lamented, "Not every American knows what a . Gold Star family is."

"I've had people say to me, `Oh. We still have troops in Afghanistan?'" says Ami Neiberger-Miller.

The gold star license plate on her car is for her kid brother.

Army Spc. Christopher T. Neiberger was standing in a turret, manning the .50-caliber machine gun, during a run through Baghdad when an improvised explosive device blew apart his Humvee. It was Aug. 6, 2007 – three days after his 22nd birthday.

While those who've lost someone to these wars are not as numerous as in her grandparents' generation, the proliferation of memorial T-shirts, car decals and even tattoos makes the survivors more visible, says Neiberger-Miller.

"I would hope that those things would invite questions," she says. "And what is surprising is how often they don't."

One difference between this war and, say, World War II is that shared sense of purpose, says Neiberger-Miller, a spokeswoman for TAPS.

"My grandparents have stories about rationing and sacrifice and having a victory garden – all of those things Americans did for the war effort," she says. "Here, it's just a different environment. I don't think people feel they've been asked to sacrifice as a group for the war effort."

The profound sacrifice of losing a loved one in service to flag and country carries its own complexity. As part of this fraternity of sorrow, survivors like Neiberger-Miller are stuck in a sometimes awkward limbo: wanting people to honor their fallen, but needing to set boundaries.

Chris Neiberger is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Section 60. During a recent visit, his sister was sitting silently in front of his gravestone when a walking tour came by.

Although making a point of not engaging the tourists, she politely answered a couple of questions. When a woman approached to hug her, Neiberger-Miller stepped aside and shook her hand instead.

"I mean, they WANT to connect," she says. "They want into that world, but they DON'T want into it."

Rachel Ascione thinks people are aware of what's going on. They often just don't know how to show it.

Her stepbrother, Marine Cpl. Ronald R. Payne Jr., of Lakeland, Fla., died May 8, 2004, when his patrol came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades while searching for a Taliban official outside Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Just 23, he was the Corps' first combat casualty in that country.

Ascione – whose mother married Payne's father when the kids were in kindergarten together – has a sticker on the back window of her car memorializing her brother. Sometimes, she will emerge from a store or restaurant to find a note from a stranger, "thanking me for my brother's sacrifice."

She recently hung out with a friend of Ron's who'd just returned from a stint as a medic in Afghanistan. He told her people here at home have no idea how bad things are.

"The longer we're there, the more people are dying," the 30-year-old Cranford, N.J., woman says. "Ultimately, everyone will know someone."

Maj. Kraehe, the marathon runner, is trying to help the rest of us "know" some of these fallen heroes.

In civilian life, Kraehe is an assistant U.S. Attorney, husband and father of two boys. When he puts on his uniform with its oak leaf insignia, he is a member of the Judge Advocate General's Corps.

Kraehe learned about the TAPS running program in 2006, during his first deployment, in Iraq. That December, he ran his first memorial race, whimsically dubbed the Honolulu Marathon "Forward." Kraehe and about 200 others ran through the flat desert along the perimeter of Contingency Operations Base Speicher, just north of Tikrit.

He did it in honor of CW2 Ruel Garcia, 34, of Wahiawa, Hawaii, who was killed Jan. 16, 2006, when his AH64D Apache helicopter was shot down over Baghdad.

In 2009, Kraehe made a decision: to run marathons in all 50 states, honoring a native son or daughter in each.

So far, he's made it to races from Arkansas (the Hogeye Marathon) to Wisconsin (the Madison Marathon), and "Rock `n Roll" runs in both New Orleans and Las Vegas. And although his second deployment – this time to Herat in western Afghanistan – has made achieving his objective more difficult, Kraehe still finds time to honor his fallen comrades.

In October, he hitched a ride on a C-130 cargo plane to run a marathon in Kabul.

A day before the race, a suicide bombing in the city killed seven Americans. So he and the other two dozen participants were confined to the embassy compound.

"The course was a .9-mile loop," he says with a laugh. "So we were just kind of running around in a circle."

Twenty-eight times.

Last month, while home on R&R, Kraehe decided to run the Boston Marathon.

Normally, TAPS hooks him up with the family of a fallen service member and obtains a photo. But the organization was unable to find someone in time, so Kraehe chose a young man who'd been killed where he is now serving.

On Sept. 28, Army Spc. Steven E. Gutowski of Plymouth, Mass., was part of a four-person team clearing roads of bombs in Afghanistan's Ghazni Province. The combat engineer and two others were killed when an IED exploded.

In Boston, when Kraehe began to flag under the day's record heat, he reflected on why he was there.

"They didn't quit," he says. "They gave it their all, literally."

The 24-year-old soldier's mother didn't know of Kraehe's tribute until a reporter told her about it.

"It's overwhelming," Joan Gutowski said, her voice breaking. "These soldiers are unbelievable. They're a cut above everybody else, I'll tell you."

Below, a slideshow of Memorial Day photos from last year.

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  • Memorial Day, Virginia

    A boy holds up at American flag in the crowded amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery as all await the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama to speak at a Memorial Day ceremony in Arlington,Va. Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • Memorial Day, Pennsylvania

    American Legion Post 78 members from left, John� Wendrychowic, Michael Gaughan, and Shawn Flynn are seen before a Memorial Day paradeMonday, May 30, 2011, in the Bridesburg neighborhood of Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • Memorial Day, Virginia

    President Barack Obama places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns during a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Memorial Day, California

    A man sits alone at Arlington West, a memorial display with hundreds of crosses and other religious symbols representing service people killed in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, sponsored by Veterans for Peace, on the beach at Santa Monica, Calif., Sunday, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

  • Memorial Day, Virginia

    Members of Tragedy Assistant Program for Survivors (T.A.P.S.) stand during the playing of the National Anthem before President Barack Obama speaks at a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Memorial Day, Pennsylvania

    Alex Anaya, 2, foreground, watches veteran march in a Memorial Day parade Monday, May 30, 2011, in the Bridesburg neighborhood of Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • Memorial Day, California

    A woman walks through the San Francisco National Cemetery as a flag flies on Memorial Day in San Francisco, Monday, May 30, 2011. Among the 30,000 Americans laid to rest here are Civil War generals, Medal of Honor recipients, Buffalo Soldiers, and a Union spy. The first known burial at the cemetery located in the Presidio occurred in 1854. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

  • Memorial Day, Virginia

    Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, left, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and U.S. President Barack Obama stand during taps at the Memorial Day service in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • Memorial Day, New Hampshire

    Possible 2012 presidential hopeful, U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., and a friend, Jeff Chidester, march with in the Memorial Day parade Monday, May 30, 2011, in North Hampton, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

  • Memorial Day, Virginia

    Anthony Ortiz Rivera, 3, right, with his mother Veronica Ortiz Rivera, of Camp LeJeune, N.C., wears a button showing his father, Marine Staff Sgt. Javier Ortiz Rivera, who was killed serving in Afghanistan in 2010, as they wait for U.S. President Barack Obama to speak at a Memorial Day service at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • Memorial Day, Virginia

    Veterans of Foreign Wars honor guards salute during the playing of "Taps" as President Barack Obama participates in the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Memorial Day, Virginia

    President Barack Obama speaks during the Memorial Day ceremony in the amphitheater of Arlington National Cemetery, Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Memorial Day, California

    Morning light falls on the San Francisco National Cemetery with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, on Memorial Day in San Francisco, Monday, May 30, 2011. Among the 30,000 Americans laid to rest here are Civil War generals, Medal of Honor recipients, Buffalo Soldiers, and a Union spy. The first known burial at the cemetery located in the Presidio occurred in 1854. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

  • Memorial Day, New York

    Riders with the Nassau-Suffolk Horsemen Association in civil war uniform lead spectators on a march through Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn for the Pre-Memorial day ceremonies, Sunday, May 29, 2011, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

  • Memorial Day, Pennsylvania

    Liz Mueller and husband Bill Mueller of Bridgeville, Pa., visit the grave of her father, John P. Lesica in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Bridgeville, Pa., Sunday, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

  • Memorial Day, Pennsylvania

    Tiffany Sanders of Bethel Park sits next to the grave of her grandfather Charles W. Ligo, an Army veteran who served in Korea, in the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Bridgeville, Pa., Sunday, May 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

  • Memorial Day, Pennsylvania

    Vietnam War veteran Michael Gaughan is seen before a Memorial Day parade Monday, May 30, 2011, in the Bridesburg neighborhood of Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • Memorial Day, Virginia

    President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm, Michael Mullen participate in the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Memorial Day, Nevada

    HENDERSON, NV - MAY 29: Roman Porrino, son of television personality Angel Porrino, runs holding an American flag at a Memorial Day weekend pool party at Ravella at Lake Las Vegas May 29, 2011 in Henderson, Nevada. His second birthday was on May 28. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Ravella at Lake Las Vegas)

  • Memorial Day, Virginia

    President Barack Obama, left, stands with Maj. Gen. Karl Horst, commander of the U.S. Army Military District of Washington, during the wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, Monday, May 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

  • Memorial Day, Ohio

    Photo taken at the 2011 Worthington Memorial Day parade.

  • Memorial Day, Florida

    Photo taken at the South Florida National Cemetery.

  • Memorial Day, Florida

    Photo taken at the 2011 South Florida National Cemetery ceremony.

  • Memorial Day, Ohio

    Photo taken at the 2011 Worthington Memorial Day parade.

  • Memorial Day, Ohio

    Photo taken at the 2011 Worthington Memorial Day parade.

  • Memorial Day, Maryland

    Photo taken at the NASA Goddard Memorial Day Commemoration Event in Maryland.

  • Memorial Day, Massachusetts

    Photo taken on Memorial Day 2011 in Boston Commons.

  • Memorial Day, Hawaii

    Photo taken for Memorial Day 2011 celebration in Waikiki Natatorium, Hawaii.

  • Memorial Day, Tennessee

    Photo taken for Memorial Day 2011 at Nashville National Cemetery.

  • Lafayette, CA Memorial

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  • K-9 On Patrol

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  • K-9 On Patrol

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  • Memorial Day at Houston Veteran Memorial Cemetery

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  • Arlington National Cemetery

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  • Memorial Day

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  • The VUMS ready for the National Memorial Day parade

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  • Pelham Manor, NY Memorial Day Parade

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  • Vets chat prior to National Memorial Day parade in DC

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  • Air Force Memorial, Arlington, VA

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  • Freedom is not free

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  • Memorial Day - Sacramento

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