11/11/2011 09:38 am ET Updated Jan 11, 2012

Care Package Patriotism

This Veterans Day weekend, Americans will gather to assemble care packages by the thousands for men and women deployed overseas. Like generations of citizen-volunteers, they are moved by noble impulses. They want to do a heartfelt thing for those in harm's way. They want to feel connected to the war effort. There's only one problem: Their good intentions may not amount to much.

Not all care packages are created equal. Coming from a friend or family member, a care package can be a precious reminder of home. But anonymous, mass-mail care packages--of the sort addressed to "Any Soldier"--often miss the mark. They frequently include items that are either worthless in a war zone or already in abundance. The waste could be forgiven, were it not for the millions of dollars and thousands of hours that go into the packages' creation. The blame often rests not with the citizens who volunteer their time, but with the organizations using it.

Consider the testimony of one Marine, who wrote about the "huge numbers of cheap plastic razors that get sent over to the war zone" which are impractical if a solider has to "shave with lukewarm water, or without water, or in the dark, or in a hurry." His thoughts on cookies are also instructive:

"Nobody needs cookies. Unless you make a particular kind of spectacular cookie every single year for Christmas, and it just wouldn't be Christmas for your soldier or Marine if he couldn't taste them -- and here I caution you not to overestimate how special your cookies are -- do not send cookies. Your troops have in all likelihood been gorging on Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and muffins for several months by now and may literally get a small gagging sensation in the back of their throat every time they even see the words, 'chocolate chip.'"

Another veteran, writing in the pages of The Atlantic about the "bizarre, unsatisfying things" care packages contain, asked, "Why...would anyone send a big stack of AARP magazines to teenage and twenty-something soldiers in a war zone? Or a box full of Sensodyne prescription-strength toothpaste tubes? Or a powder blue 'Hello Kitty' t-shirt?" Why, indeed. It should come as little surprise that heaps of boxes go unopened or go into the trash after one or two prized items are pulled out.

In the thick of combat, the quality of care packages may be the furthest thing from soldiers' minds. And in fact, this issue will largely resolve itself as the wars come to a close. Mail to military bases in Iraq, for example, will no longer be accepted after November 17th. But care packages are symbolic of a more lasting problem: They are a powerful reminder of how estranged civilians have become from the military. And with tens of thousands of veterans on their way home, it's worth considering what will happen when the 1% of citizens who have worn the uniform in this conflict confront the 99% who have not.

For many civilians, the decade of combat may as well have been imaginary. It is about to become real--and raw. War may be a vague abstraction to some, but the reality of a lost limb is clear and unmistakable to everyone. And there is nothing make-believe about the high rates of suicide and homelessness among returning vets.

There's reason to think that civilians want to be closer to their soldiers. The American public is eager to say thank you. They give generously to veterans' charities. They stand at baseball games, pin yellow ribbons to their doors, and, yes, even make care packages. It is easy to take this good will for granted, but our country hasn't always embraced its returning warriors this way.

But these steps also aren't enough. So long as the public's interaction with returning veterans is limited to gratitude or gifts, the gap in understanding between the two groups will persist, because the public will see veterans only as objects of charity or pity -- rather than as civic assets.

So what can civilians do? Speak to soldiers--not just about the war, which is in the past, but about their plans for the future. Volunteer with veterans, not just for them. Think hard about veterans' charities. Some translate good intentions into real impact; others don't. Finally, pay attention. Read, listen, learn--in a word, seek to understand.

Above all, we must check our prejudices. The fate of this generation of veterans rests on two questions: Whether soldiers are treated as charity cases or future leaders, and whether they are greeted with handouts or challenges. If we begin to see the wounded and broken as still strong and capable, we can answer these questions in a way that helps.

This may seem hard at first, but it's actually easier than the alternative. When you stop trying to 'fix' someone, they become your equal. And when you challenge someone, you give them the gift of growth. In other words, the very best "care package" we can offer to this generation of veterans--a group that has already given much--may simply be the chance to give more.