May 1, 2001

By Richard Roeper
Chicago Sun Times Columnist
 Nikki Mendicino of Springdale Borough, Pa., has devoted much of her life to veterans'     

   She has befriended World War II veterans and often visits them in VA hospitals.
She's  given speeches in Washington, D.C. She's been decorated with prestigious
civilian honors  for her work. She placed letters about veterans in the hands of Al Gore
and George W.  Bush during the election campaign.

   "I see myself helping veterans and working on POW/MIA issues 10 years from now,
20  years from now and for the rest of my life," she tells me.  "We owe them, and the
least that I   can do is let them know that I care and say thank you. They have been
forgotten and what's  happening to them at our VA centers and hospitals isn't right."

   Mendicino's dedication is admirable, infectious and unusual. Particularly so, given
that she's all of 12 years old.  

   A day or two after Sen. Bob Kerrey held a press conference to talk about the events of
 Feb. 25, 1969, when Kerrey and his squad killed some 20 Viet Cong civilians, I
overheard a  woman at an outdoor cafe in Chicago say something like, "When did that
happen, 32 years  ago? I wasn't even born then."

   This is the classic excuse given when one doesn't know or doesn't care about a point
in   history: "I don't know anything about (the Beatles, JFK's assassination, the Vietnam
War,  whatever). That stuff happened before I  was even born." By that rationale, what's
the  point in going to church or temple? All that religious stuff happened before you were
born, as well.

   But there's hope for the future as long as the future contains the likes of Nikki                 
Mendicino. Forget about having lived during Vietnam; this kid was but a toddler during
the Persian Gulf War. Yet she spends nearly every free waking moment sprucing up her  
 professional-looking Web site (;  corresponding with    
   veterans; writing and delivering speeches; visiting VA hospitals or planning her next
trip to a veterans' gathering.

   Nikki's involvement started three years ago, after a Veterans Day presentation at her   

   "[A man named] John Kridlo was there, and he had all of his medals with him and he    
talked about being in the 4th Infantry Division and landing at Utah Beach on D-Day," says  

   "I really didn't know what D-Day was [at the time]. `Saving Private Ryan' was out, so I    
asked my mom if she would take me to see it. It was one of the best movies I had ever     
 seen, but it made me very sad because our veterans go through so much to protect us,  
  and I couldn't understand why we didn't know more about what they have done for us."

   A few months later, when the Moving Wall tribute to Vietnam veterans came to the        
Pittsburgh area, Nikki and her mother worked every day as volunteers.

   "I could tell that a lot of people couldn't figure out what a kid was doing there," she        
says, "but by the second day I knew how many names were on the wall, why it was set
up  the way it is, and I even knew where most of the local names were located."

   Veterans who had met her at the Moving Wall exhibit invited her to attend other              
events, and she began to visit and befriend veterans in VA hospitals. And she started
the Web site.

   Last year, Nikki delivered a speech at the Reflecting Pool in Washington, D.C., that       
was broadcast on C-SPAN. (The graphic identified her as "Nikki Mendicino, Activist.")       
She'll give another speech there at a rally on May 27.

   "I've had a few kids say to me, `Didn't we lose the Vietnam War?' I say, "Absolutely       
not. We didn't lose the war, we left Vietnam, and then we forgot about the veterans who  
 fought there.' "

   (As for Kerrey, Nikki says she believes he and other U.S. soldiers did what they had     
to do during the war. She also asked why people make such a distinction between           
civilians killed by bombs dropped from planes, and civilians killed by gunfire. Good           

   Now in seventh grade, Nikki tells me her goals for the immediate future include             
"meeting veterans all over the country and [meeting] other kids my age at events in          
 states across the country so I can help them learn and help them understand why it is
so  important to say thank you to veterans."

   Beyond that? "In the year 2024, I want to become president of the United States, and   
I've got 23 more years to campaign! I care about the country we live in and I would work  
 hard for veterans and POW/MIAs, just like I'm doing now. I would work hard for
everyone  because we live in the greatest country in the world . . . I believe in what I am
doing and   I believe that I can make a difference, because I care and I know that my
generation will   care too."

   Too bad we have to wait so long. Why do I have the feeling that if this kid and Dubya   
switched places for a day right now, neither her junior high school nor his White House   
 would suffer for the experience?
Thanks Mr. Roeper, I loved this article!
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