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Fallen but not forgotten: 'It is OK to smile'

By John Rutherford, Producer, NBC News, Washington

Last year, Army Sgt. Peter Neesley adopted two stray dogs off the streets of Baghdad and named them Boris and Mama. He fed them, built them a dog house, and loved them dearly. After Neesley died in his sleep of an undetermined cause on Christmas Day, his family began a successful effort to bring Boris and Mama to America to live with them in their suburban Detroit home (01/03/2008 Daily Nightly and 02/11/2008 Field Notes).

Today, three months after their arrival in Michigan, Boris and Mama are doing just fine, thank you.

"They are adjusting well to domestic life and especially love sleeping on the sofas," Neesley's sister Carey wrote. "They are very affectionate and especially love my son (Peter's nephew), Patrick. They love running around the backyard with him and taking walks at night. Spring has finally arrived in Michigan and they love laying in the grass and Boris loves chasing ants on the driveway."

Most importantly, they're helping Peter's family heal.

"They make us feel closer to Peter, to hold and love something he did in his last days," Carey wrote. "And they remind us that it is OK to smile and laugh sometimes, when we were not sure we would again."

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A new "Interactive Vietnam Veterans Memorial" Web site was created in March with the names, service records and casualty reports of the 58,256 Americans who died in the Vietnam War. (03/26/08 Field Notes) Visitors to the Web site are encouraged to contribute their own comments, stories and photos of the fallen.

"These are individuals, these are people who have given their lives, these are many of them my friends," Vietnam veteran Richard Schroepfer says in a video on the Web site.

Schroepfer's son, Justin, who helped put the Web site together, said the site was viewed nearly 250,000 times in its first month, exceeding all expectations.

"We've had mothers leaving comments to their fallen sons, sons leaving comments to fathers they barely knew, and friends thanking their war buddies for their sacrifices," Justin said.

The site has received lots of praise.

"This is beautiful," one person wrote. "My cousin was 19 when he died in Vietnam in 1968. I was only 8. My last memory of him was huge - we were out in his yard saying goodbye and he was smoking - I have this lasting impression he was a man. He was just a baby. His father was never the same after he died. I haven't been able to go see the Wall in person - this is just so beautiful. Thank you."

So far, Justin said, over a thousand people have contributed comments, spotlight pages and photos to the site.

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I received over 100 comments to a tribute I wrote in March to Army Maj. Alan Rogers, who was killed in Iraq and buried at Arlington National Cemetery (3/14/08 Field Notes) Several of the comments were highly critical of me for not mentioning that Maj. Rogers was gay.

"It is absolutely pathetic that John Rutherford timidly avoids broaching this fact for the sake of his conservative readers," Rick Segreda wrote.

Added Bridget Wilson: "Shame on MSNBC for joining the conspiracy of silence and denying comfort to those he loved and who loved him."

Believe me, there was no conspiracy on my part. I did not mention Maj. Rogers was gay because I did not know it when I wrote the tribute. None of the articles I read prior to his burial referred to his sexual orientation. Had I known, I would have mentioned it because he apparently made no secret of it. Several readers pointed out he was treasurer and membership coordinator for a gay and lesbian veterans organization in Washington, DC.

Click here to view tributes to the 199 service members killed this year in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the following four casualties from last week:

1. Army Pvt. Matthew Brown, 20, of Zelienople, Pa.

2. Army Cpl. Jessica Ellis, 24, of Bend, Ore.

3. Army Staff Sgt. Victor Cota, 33, of Tucson, Ariz.

4. Army Sgt. John Daggett, 21, of Phoenix, Ariz.

Washington Producer John Rutherford is a decorated Vietnam veteran. He also posts stories on the military at www.fieldnotes.msnbc.com (click on "John Rutherford" under "categories") and at http://john-rutherford.newsvine.com/. The tribute gallery can be found at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22802019/.