Even the very youngest now are in their 80s.

They are members of what former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw called "The Greatest Generation" -- a group of Americans hardened by the Great Depression and tempered by World War II.

They are among the 16 million who served in the U.S. armed forces between 1941 and 1945, a period when two maniacal fascist regimes were intent on taking over the planet. As soldiers, sailors and Marines, their characters were forged of duty, honor, courage, love of country and responsibility.

Some in fierce combat in Europe or the Pacific, others in strategy and support roles abroad and at home, they very literally saved the world. Decorated or not, all are heroes.

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

Yet our town is blessed that World War II veterans still walk among us, perhaps assisted by a cane, perhaps not. It is Westport's great privilege to have one of them -- 89-year-old Tracy Sugarman -- lead its parade on Monday as Grand Marshal.

For many of us, the most vivid images of D-Day may be the carefully choreographed Omaha Beach landing that is the opening scene of Steven Spielberg's 1998 film "Saving Private Ryan."

Sugarman, fresh out of Midshipmen School, was part of the real invasion of Normandy. "I love Memorial Day," he said last week, adding that he especially likes it because "it gives every kid a chance to march in the parade."

The World War II veterans are quietly and too quickly slipping away. Nationally, we are losing about 850 each day, the government estimates.

On Veterans' Day last fall, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that barely more than 10 percent of World War II-era veterans remained -- about 1.9 million. That number will slip to 1.7 million by Veterans' Day this year and to about 850,000 four years from now, the government expects. Yet in Westport, Sugarman and others remain active. Veterans' groups this week have been lining up convertibles to slowly carry them along thre parade route from Saugatuck Elementary School to Veterans Green. Those staking out spots along the route on Monday -- whether 18 inches of curbstone on Post Road or a lawnchair on the treebelt -- should keep a keen watch for the oldest veterans.

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

For all that we owe veterans of all eras, many Americans in the last quarter of the 20th century had an uneasy and often hostile relationship with the military. Many decried military spending and the politicians who sent forces into combat.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, it was the first foreign attack on U.S. soil since the War of 1812. Military enlistment soared, and a nation united behind the war effort. After Hitler and Hirohito were defeated, proud residents embraced soldiers and sailors returning to Westport.

But less than 25 years later, early members of the Baby Boom generation -- ironically progeny of the war-hero generation -- staged a sweeping social revolution that had at its center opposition to the Vietnam War. Among young people, sex, drugs and rock `n roll ruled. Many scorned the military. Some young men burned draft cards, some left the country to dodge the draft.

Returning Vietnam vets were denied the heroes' welcomes their fathers had received after World War II. Some were ridiculed, horribly undeservedly.

A generation later, the pendulum has swung again.

For us Americans under age 70, our Pearl Harbor happened on Sept. 11, 2001.

As did the attack on Pearl Harbor, the World Trade Center attack shocked the nation, laid bare its vulnerability and united us. With Westport's loss that day, our town knows this well. The ensuing invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, like Vietnam a generation before, ignited political debate and intense analysis of military objectives.

But unlike Vietnam, there has been even among the critics an overriding ethic of "oppose the action but support the troops." This month's slaying of Osama bin Laden has made anonymous heroes of Navy SEALs who carried out a deft, surgical strike and heightened broader appreciation for our troops.

So let us on this Memorial Day weekend thank all our troops for their service.

Cherish those of the Greatest Generation while we have them. Appreciate those who served in Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan. But don't thank them in your mind. Shake a veteran's hand this weekend and say "thank you" to his or her face. Those are two words, too often unsaid but so much deserved. And in some cases, so much overdue.