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Despite the recent tragedy aboard the USS Iowa, battleships continue to serve a vital function, retired Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. told the 11th annual Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program luncheon in the Convention Center Friday.

"And the American public understands that," added Zumwalt, who was the youngest four-star admiral in U.S. Navy history.

Zumwalt, whose career was capped by serving as commander of U.S Naval Forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1970 and chief of naval operations from 1970 until his retirement in 1974, also spoke about Agent Orange, the herbicide used in Vietnam and now blamed by some for cancer cases.

Zumwalt's son, Elmo R. Zumwalt III, died last year of cancer possibly linked to his exposure to Agent Orange.

"In the past, I have blamed the former top management of the Veterans Administration for its shocking attitude," Zumwalt said. "Today, I am delighted that the present management of the VA has decided now to re-review the thousands of cases of cancer that were erroneously dismissed."

Zumwalt, who served as navigator aboard the battleship Wisconsin during the Korean War, has been enthusiastic about the huge fighting vessels.

"We had one battlewagon in Vietnam. After the war, President Reagan brought them back, as part of an effort to quickly retrieve our naval capability to survive a war with Russia," Zumwalt said.

"At that time, we had a 35 percent capability of survival, and we should have at least a 50 percent chance, which we have with battleships.

"I still think battleships are good. They are the most survivable ships in the world today. Their 16-inch guns offer terrific support for amphibious landings or lang-range shelling and their Tomahawk missiles give them the capability to reach 1,500 miles inland.

"The recent explosion aboard the Iowa was a tragedy. We must learn what happened, and why," Zumwalt said.

"But the average American understands that the military operates basically dangerous equipment. Someone dies somewhere in the world every day due to the operation of that equipment. It is only when a tragedy such as this occurs that the media get interested in military operations."

The luncheon also saw awards of five scholarships to local students whose parents served in the Vietnam War. Since the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program started, it has awarded $15,000 in scholarship help. This year's recipients are:

Marjorie Ward, a Kenmore East graduate headed for the State College at Geneseo, the daughter of Army helicopter pilot Kevin Ward.

David Flint, a Lyndonville Central High School graduate headed for Cornell, the son of combat infantryman James Flint.

Natalie Retzlaff, a Lewiston-Porter High School graduate who will attend Wellesley, the daughter of Aloysius Retzlaff, who served two tours in Vietnam as an infantry commander.

Nicole Taylor, a Royalton-Hartland High School graduate who will attend West Texas State University, the daughter of infantryman Clare Taylor (deceased).

Jenna Trembath a graduate of Lake Shore High School headed for Erie Community College, daughter of James Trembath, who served with the 101st Airborne.

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