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Editorial / Be certain to salute veterans, especially the oldest

Published 4:05 pm, Thursday, May 23, 2013
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More than 16 million Americans served in the armed services during World War II.

Each was a member of what former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation" -- a group hardened by the Great Depression and tempered by that war.

As soldiers, sailors and Marines, their characters were forged of duty, honor, courage, love of country and responsibility. They served between 1941 and 1945, a period when two maniacal, fascist regimes were intent on taking over the planet.

The U.S. troops -- some in fierce combat in Europe or the Pacific, others in strategy and support roles abroad and at home -- saved the world. Decorated or not, all are heroes.

Those who never made it back to Westport are memorialized on Veterans Green.

As time marches on, fewer and fewer who did make it remain with us.

Even the very youngest -- those who enlisted as teenagers before the war ended in 1945 -- now are well into their 80s. By the Veterans Administration's count, perhaps 1 million are alive -- about 7 percent of those who served. And the VA estimates we are losing an average of more than 800 per day.

In Westport, about 20 World War II veterans participated in last year's Memorial Day parade, a remarkable number for a town of 26,000 people. And parade organizers said they expect about the same number will ride in convertibles at this year's parade on Monday, although a few of the most spry may march.

One of them, Leonard Fisher, will be the parade's grand marshal.

Fisher, 88, served in an Army topography battalion that made maps for Allied campaigns in Europe, the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters. His battalion had a hand in toppling Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito.

In an interview this week, he said he is the last surviving member of his unit.

Fisher is the second World War II veteran -- and the second artist and illustrator -- in as many years to wear the grand marshal's sash.

Tracy Sugarman, a veteran of the D-Day landing in Normandy had the honor last year. He died in January at age 91.

Memorial Day in the first half of this century was more commonly known as Decoration Day -- a day set aside to decorate the graves of those killed in wars. It is a tradition that dates back to ancient Greece but gained popularity in the U.S. after the Civil War, when a staggering 620,000 soldiers were killed -- then 2 percent of the population.

After World War II, Memorial Day became the favored name, and ultimately the government adopted it officially.

It remains a day primarily to honor those who lost their lives in wars. Veterans Day, celebrated in November, is intended to honor veterans who still are among us.

But military service is celebrated on Memorial Day, a holiday more widely observed and one on which parades in warm weather seem to make the veterans far more visible than in the chill of November.

While we continue to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, it seems right to also honor -- and to heartily thank -- those veterans who came home.

This Memorial Day weekend, let us show appreciation for all who have served -- whether in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan or peace-keeping missions elsewhere.

Veterans' groups this week have been lining up convertibles to carry the World War II veterans along the parade route from Saugatuck Elementary School to Veterans Green. Spectators staking out spots along the route on Monday -- whether 18 inches of curbstone on the Post Road bridge or a lawn chair on the tree belt -- should keep a keen watch for the oldest veterans.

Shower them with gratitude. If there is a youngster at hand, hoist him or her up for a better view and say, "He saved the world."

Cherish those of the Greatest Generation while we have them.