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The best are always there ... the rest should know and remember that

The first time I heard the following joke, I laughed, but not because it's the least bit funny. Question: How many Vietnam vets does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: I don't know. I wasn't there. I repeat the joke at the beginning of this ...

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The first time I heard the following joke, I laughed, but not because it's the least bit funny.

Question: How many Vietnam vets does it take to change a light bulb?

Answer: I don't know. I wasn't there.

I repeat the joke at the beginning of this Memorial Day weekend with deepest respect for the men and women who were there and who do know. Vietnam was my generation's war. I wasn't there, though, so I don't know.

I know some of the more than half a million members of the military who were there. Troop strength in 1968 was listed at something like 550,000. More than 16,500 were listed as killed in action that year. The Wall, the memorial to the men and women who died in the Vietnam War, listed 58,286 names the last time I looked. So, indeed, they were there, and they know.

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Several kids from my high-school days were there. Most returned. A few did not. Many young people who shared my time on campus at South Dakota State University went to Vietnam. A whole lot of them were drafted. Many others volunteered, quite a number after going through the Reserve Officer Training Corps at State.

One of those young men, Curt Andersen from Lake Preston, became a great friend during our years as journalism majors. Curt genuinely was the kid next door, friendly, scary smart and always willing to help with a study assignment or a flat tire. He joined the Army in part to learn to fly helicopters. In the latter half of the 1960s, anyone in the military who could fly a helicopter was bound for Vietnam.

Curt died using his helicopter to draw gunfire from an enemy unit lying in wait to ambush a patrol of American soldiers. Whenever I think of him - and I always think of him on Memorial Day - I smile and say, "Of course, he did. He wouldn't have considered doing anything else.''

He was my friend, and he became one name on a wall of the 58,000. He and each of those others etched in the Wall are comrades of the men and women who died in each of the other wars waged in the name of the United States of America. They are the reason for Memorial Day.

I began this piece with a Vietnam story. I end it with words written by Hal Boyle, a war correspondent and columnist for The Associated Press. Boyle won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on World War II. He understood something about fighting and dying, the nature of war and the American soldier. He returned to the site of the Normandy invasion to write a column. I took the following paragraphs from a book on writing called "The Word'' by Rene J. Cappon , also of the AP:

"OMAHA BEACH, Normandy (AP) - It is D-Day plus five years, soldier, on this sandy coast where the world hinged on what you did.

Because you did well here your world at home is as good as it is, and if it isn't any better, why they'll have to blame someone else. There are some things you can do with a gun and there are other things you can't.

What's it like here now, soldier, five years after you landed and put the first torch to Adolf Hitler's Western Wall?

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Well, the best answer might come from Pvt. Anthony R. Calif, or his neighbor, Pfc. Marvin C. Garness, or his neighbor, Lt. George W. Phillips, who has become a buddy of Staff Sgt. Miles S. Lewis.

They have all settled here together, and they are all quiet men. But they wouldn't be interested so much in telling you what it's like now. They'd rather ask you: "What's it like now at home? And my folks - are they well and happy?''

For they came here to stay, silent citizens of a silent American city on foreign soil. They rest with 9,523 other soldiers in the U.S. military cemetery atop a high green hill overlooking Omaha Beach.''

Some of the best of us are there, in every war. That much the rest of us always should know.

Related Topics: TERRY WOSTER
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