American Profile Magazine
May 19 - 25, 2002
COVER STORY

Nikki Mendicino captures the hearts of
veterans across America.

Story by Ellen Margulies
Photos by Justin Merriman
Nikki Mendicino was just 10 when John
Kridlo visited her fifth-grade class for
Veteran's Day in 1998 to recount the
dramatic day, June 6, 1944, when the
Allies invaded Europe in World War II.
Kridlo, an infantryman, landed on Utah
Beach in Normandy, France, in the
pre-dawn hours of that fateful day.

Many youngsters might have
daydreamed or paid polite attention to
this elderly man with an old war story,
only to let it slip away later. But not
Nikki. Something clicked that day
between the grizzled soldier and the
little girl from Springdale, Pa.
She walked up to him after his speech, to say hello and thank you. The conversation flowed easily. "I started to
talk to him," Nikki, now 13, recalls. "The more I heard, the more I wanted to get involved."

Nikki promised to visit him at the Southwestern Veterans Center, where he lives, and soon became a regular
visitor. She enjoyed talking with Kridlo, but her visits revealed a sad fact: Many veterans felt forgotten,
overlooked, unappreciated.
About the same time, the World War II movie, Saving Private Ryan, was in theaters, and she asked to see it. Her
parents screened it first, then agreed. "My mom said that she wanted me and my twin brother to see it
because it wasn't about violence, it was about reality, and she knew that it would help me understand what Mr.
Kridlo went through on D-Day," Nikki says.

The movie deepened her commitment to Kridlo and others like him.
"Our veterans went through things that we could never understand, they made sacrifices that most of us will
never have to make, and they did everything they could to protect their brothers beside them and fight for our
freedom."
That's why this young patriot, whose work has captured the hearts of veterans across America, will show her
patriotism and respect for those who served and died for this nation by speaking, for the third year, at a
Memorial Day rally at the reflecting pool on the mall in Washington, D.C.  She'll be there at the invitation of
Rolling Thunder Inc., a nonprofit, veterans rights group whose Memorial Day rallies for the last 14 years have
attracted hundreds of thousands of veterans.
One of Nikki's biggest fans is Michael Mendicino,
a World War II Veteran and her grandfather.
'THANK YOU'

As Nikki learned about veterans and their issues, she asked tough questions, particularly when she learned that
soldiers from the Vietnam War remained missing.
"I had to explain to her ... that there were over 58,000 names on The (Vietnam Veterans) Wall and approximately
2,000 of them are POW/MIAs," says her mother, Michelle Mendicino. "I truly believe that her passion began then
and there, when she fully understood the meaning behind the POW/MIAs."

That passion grew with every veteran she met. Nikki felt compelled to spread the word. And as she did so, word
about Nikki spread, too.

She found herself invited to make speeches at rallies. Her first public appearances were little more than 'thank
you', but the more she learned, the more she had to say.

Nikki is undaunted at the prospect of delivering a speech before thousands. "What I speak about is what I
believe in, and it's not hard at all when you know you are doing the right thing," she says. "The greatest feeling in
the world is standing up and being able to say to thousands of veterans, 'Thank you and welcome home,' or
telling them that my generation will care and having them cheer as loud as they can, because I have given them
hope in the future when they didn't think there was any."

With her mother's help, Nikki set up a website, www.geocities.com/nlmendicino, dedicated to American
veterans. She delved into the sticky politics of the POW-MIAs, "adopting" eight Vietnam vets who still haven't
been accounted for and urging everyone she meets to do the same.

Her efforts have been met with gratitude and recognition: She's frequently asked to speak; a group of veterans
on the Internet made her an "honorary veteran" and she is a junior member of Rolling Thunder. Gov. Tom Ridge,
now the U.S. director of Homeland Security, last year awarded Nikki the Pennsylvania Medal of Commendation,
the state's second-highest honor for her work as an advocate for American prisoners of war and soldiers
missing in action.
Nikki, one of four of Michelle and Daniel Mendicino's children, has enthralled audiences of thousands and shared
the stage with everyone from local politicians to President Bush.

Nikki has testified before Congress, written letters to senators,  made personal pleas to the leaders of the
world's most powerful nation. "She's not afraid to stand up to them," her mother says. "I sit there myself
sometimes and say, "Wow, where does that come from? She teaches me a lot." Michelle says she'll encourage
her daughter to stay active "as long as she still wants to do it."
'NOT JUST A PASSING FAD'

The veterans Nikki has come to care for so much also have learned a thing or two. Chuck "Doc" Stewart, 53, a
retired machinist from East Syracuse, N.Y., did two tours of duty in Vietnam during his three years in the U.S.
Army. Today he runs his own website for veterans, a network dedicated to the myriad issues they face.

"I met Nikki through her mom. She visited my website in August of '99, and she asked me to visit her daughter's
site. Once I saw her website I was just enthralled," Stewart says. "It's unbelievable, the fact that she's so
passionate, so dedicated at her age."
"It's not just a passing fad. She's totally dedicated to it in every respect, not just the veteran issues but the POW
issues. She gives so much of herself."

Early on, Stewart helped Nikki increase awareness of veterans' rights and introduced her via e-mail to John
Mendes, vice president of Rolling Thunder.  As their friendship grew, under the approving eye of Michelle, who
screens the hundreds of e-mails Nikki receives before she lets her daughter open them, Stewart found himself
embracing a newfound hope for the up-and-coming generation.

"To know that there's young people like her that are going to continue to carry the torch after we're gone, I don't
know how to explain it," he says. "She's some kid."

Dan "Little Mac" McCarthy, 55, of Albuquerque, N.M., particularly was impressed that young Nikki had done her
homework on veterans issues. "She's read, she's researched, the kid is outrageously well-informed," says
McCarthy, a Vietnam veteran who spent 27 years in the military.

McCarthy, who teaches at the University of New Mexico, learned about Nikki from a friend who'd been to her
website and urged him to check it out.

He's watched Nikki's popularity among veterans' "just snowball," he says. He watched her speak with the
practiced poise of a seasoned activist before an audience of tens of thousands at one rally. "Nikki took the
stage. The wind was blowing, and it blew her notes away and somebody scrambled for them. She said, 'I don't
need them. I know what I want to say.' She just blew them away. It's just so gripping, and her statements are
solid," McCarthy says.
It's heartwarming, McCarthy says, to see young people such as Nikki pick up the torch for a generation that
won't be around forever. "I've got a daughter her age. I know how fervent they can be, how motivated they can be
on any given issue," he says, "and this is hers."

The charismatic combination of Nikki's youth and her political savvy has opened some doors and some ears,
where the pleas of the veterans themselves have gone unheard. She's won small victories, such as raising the
POW-MIA flag over her hometown post office. She's also won a string of honors, awards, and medals.

Despite her passion and maturity, Nikki is very much a normal teen-ager, her mother says. "She is a cheerleader
at school, volunteers at the summer reading program at our local library, goes shopping and to the movies with
her friends, and so on," Michelle says.

But with every veteran she meets, with every war story she hears, Nikki's determination grows stronger. "To
her, they are heroes, and their stories are her inspiration to make the world a better place," her mother says.

Nikki sums up the heart of the issue simply: "They gave us our freedom, and so they deserve some recognition.
We owe them........ we're in their debt."




Ellen Margulies is a Nashville, Tenn., freelance writer.








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