Couples crowded Times Square last week to mark the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II.

They puckered up and kissed to re-enact the famous scene captured in the iconic 1945 Life magazine photo of VJ Day.

Another milestone also passed with far less fanfare, the final U.S. combat brigade left Iraq last week, about 12 days ahead of the Aug. 31 deadline set by President Barack Obama.

Our soldiers rolled across the desert into Kuwait, some of them retracing the dusty route they crossed under fire during the Iraq invasion of 2003.

No spontaneous celebrations broke out in New York’s Times Square and the pullout was the second or third story on network news broadcasts.

That probably reflects two things:

First, the uncertain nature of this victory and, second, the lack of attachment most Americans have to this cause.

The U.S. still has about 50,000 troops in the country, down from a high of 170,000.

Those still left are supposed to be in non-combat roles supporting and training the Iraq Army, and they are scheduled to leave by Jan. 1, 2012.

Unlike VJ Day, there will be no formal enemy surrender ceremony like the one that accompanied the Japanese capitulation aboard the U.S.S. Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945.

We seem to tiptoe away from wars these days, hoping what we have left behind in this case a fragile democracy shared by seemingly irreconcilable ethnic foes will blossom, but also knowing it may not.

It will take years to know whether our seven-year war in Iraq had a lasting, positive impact.

Still, despite the absence of ticker-tape parades and public celebrations, we have a responsibility to repeatedly thank and support returning U.S. soldiers.

We have the most highly trained, most professional military force in the world, and our soldiers performed admirably under the most difficult of circumstances.

Some of the returning soldiers have served two, three, four or even five tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan.

They have watched friends die, have endured painful separations from their families, and battled and largely subdued a ruthless enemy.

The cost has been high: 4,415 U.S. troops killed and nearly 32,000 injured, some sustaining wounds that will change their lives forever.

By comparison, most Americans have been relatively disengaged from this war, particularly in comparison to World War II.

We have spent nearly $751 billion in Iraq, nearly all simply borrowed and added to our national debt.

Unlike previous generations, we were not asked to pay higher taxes, ration our food, forgo purchasing new cars, asked to buy war bonds or submit to a draft.

Having a voluntary army meant professionalism and competence was high, but the burden of fighting this war and the one in Afghanistan continues to fall heavily on the same soldiers and families year after year.

About two million Americans have served in Afghanistan, Iraq or both. About one million of them are now civilians.

Thousands will eventually find their way to Afghanistan. Thousands of others will make an uneasy transition to civilian life, many returning to homes lost in the mortgage crisis, jobs that have disappeared since they went to war and marriages that failed under the stress of deployment.

What’s more, a 2008 RAND Corp. study found that 26 percent of these veterans will suffer from war-related mental-health issues, 300,000 from post-traumatic stress disorder and 320,000 from traumatic brain injury.

They will return to an economy in which one in 10 Americans is still unemployed.

“If one gauge of a nation’s humanity is how it treats its returning soldiers, then the U.S. is about to face a significant test,” Christian Science Monitor writer Michael B. Farrell recently wrote in his story, “The Surge Home.”

Our soldiers have done their duty. Ours will be to welcome and support them when they come home.

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