A LONG TIME COMING…
BY XANDE ANDERER, PHOTOS BY MICHAEL O’KANE
How do you create a holiday from scratch?
Valentine’s Day, Saint Patrick’s Day, Christmas, and Easter are dates from the religious calendar. Halloween is, toowell, sort of. Independence Day and Veterans Day mark important events in history. Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving official by presidential decree. Grover Cleveland did the same for Labor Day. And the mighty Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1968 landed Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day on their strategically placed Mondays.
So how does one go about getting a Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day on the books?
The push to create a holiday in honor of Vietnam veterans began in earnest in 2000, when Vietnam veteran Jose Ramos rode his bike cross-country from California to Washington, D.C., drumming up publicity along the way before arriving outside the White House to demand that the president designate March 30ththe day the last American combat troops left Vietnam in 1973as a national holiday honoring Vietnam veterans.
Momentum grew slowly until 2009, when the endorsements of actors Jon Voight and Arnold Schwarzenegger brought a new wave of publicity to the campaign. Voight and Ramos attended the 2009 VVA National Convention in Louisville seeking support for the holiday. From there, a steady stream of states began to set aside March 29th or 30th to honor Vietnam veterans. Eighteen states now designate the day as a state holiday and the U.S. Senate has passed a resolution for the past three years recognizing the holiday on a year-by-year basis.
This is the uphill battle Vietnam veterans’ groups face as they consider how best to commemorate the day and mold it into an established holiday. City officials and the veterans’ community in Branson, Missouri, are no exception. This year they tackled the holiday head-on for the very first time.
Those who have visited Branson know it as the self-styled “Veterans Capital of the Nation.” It is a town that wears its patriotism in plain sight. Veterans are honored just about everywhere you look, and their service recognized during almost every live show in town. So it was a logical step to plan a big Welcome Home weekend this year and encourage vets to come celebrate in Branson, where veterans are royalty.
The weekend kicked off Friday morning with Branson’s Salute to Vietnam Veterans, an overstuffed slate of entertainment held at the Hughes Brothers Theater. The show opened with VVA’s Branson Chapter 913 presenting the colors in their distinctive black berets, white belts, and white ascots. A table with an empty chair and place setting was set on stage to honor POW/MIAs, and remained there throughout the show.
Branson mayor Raeanne Presley addressed the audience, declaring, “Today is a day to heal, to close up old wounds, and to say thanks to the men who put themselves in jeopardy to serve our country in that war.” When host Jason Yeager burst onto the stage to kick off the entertainment with a hearty, “Welcome home, vets!” the somber theater erupted in applause.
“As a country, we didn’t really do it at the time, and it’s one of our nation’s great tragedies,” he said. “We need to live every day through events like this to correct that mistake and to thank our courageous veterans.”
All the day’s performers expressed their gratitude for the sacrifices made by the veterans in the audiences. Many took the time to have veterans stand and be recognized, and most spoke of their personal connections to the Vietnam Wara brother, a spouse, a parent.
“Today is finally our day,” said Army veteran Burt Wittrup during intermission. “A day when we can finally say we are welcomed back home.”
The other Vietnam vets in attendance shared his sentiments. “I experienced some of that hostility when I returned home from Vietnam,” said Bill Gilmer, who drove from Little Rock, Arkansas, to enjoy the weekend’s activities. “The thing you have to remember about [Vietnam veterans] is that we made a promise that the younger generation fighting our wars now would never get the treatment we got. And we’re keeping that promise. You’ll find us at the airport and along the highway welcoming our young troops home.”
“We never got the parade we deserved, but I’ll be getting mine tomorrow,” quipped one grinning veteran after the show.
And a parade he got. The next morning veterans, their families, Cub Scouts, bikers, hot-rodders, firefighters, and local celebrities formed up in unseasonably radiant sunshine to show both pride and appreciation. Again, the Chapter 913 Color Guard led the way, followed by the chapter’s parade float, decorated with two immense “Welcome Home” banners. The float was manned by a cadre of veterans whose ranks grew as the parade progressed and as vets in the crowd were encouraged to climb aboard the float. Parade organizer Arlen Lipper, who is the founder of bransonveteranevents.com and a VVA Chapter 913 member, was pleased. “We’re already planning next year’s weekend. It’s just going to get bigger and bigger,” he said. “There’ll be some big surprises.”
Parades will always have a special place in the hearts of most Vietnam veterans, considering the deafening silence when they returned home from the war: “I was taken out of the jungle, put on a plane, and stepped off in San Antonio,” one veteran said. “There was no one there. I walked outside and got in a cab to come home. I’ll never miss a parade for Nam vets. None of us ever got the parade we deserved.”
“When I got home, I arrived puffed-up with pride about my service to my country. While we were [in country] we didn’t realize how hated that war was by some people back in The World,” said Michael Lynch, an Air Force veteran who drove to Branson from Tennessee for the parade.
“I’m glad this day is here,” said another. “That war tore our country apart. No matter how many parades I attend, it feels like each heals us just a little more.”
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