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Thirty years after the end of the fighting, Vietnam War veterans are having a homecoming in Branson, Mo., this week to relive memories, rekindle friendships and retell their stories.
BRANSON, Mo. – The Big Red One on Thomas Watt's beret was a dream come true for John R. John, just as it had been 37 years ago when he was pinned down by enemy fire.
It was what the Vietnam veteran hoped to see when he traveled here from his home in Mansfield, Texas – not the flag-waving, not the hurrahs, not the song and dance this southwest Missouri town is famous for.
It was the insignia of the 1st Infantry Division that John longed to see. It was the same insignia he wore on the shoulder of his Army fatigues on Tuesday, just as he had worn it on May 4, 1968.
Though they did not meet on the battlefield that day, Watt – an Okanogan Indian from Omak – knew John's story. Both served with the 1st Battalion of the 18th Infantry Regiment. When John's Delta Company was ambushed outside a Vietnamese village, it was Watt's Alpha Company that came to the rescue. John has waited all these years to say "Thank you."
"When I give honor to another combat veteran, I feel I receive honor," Watt said.
He was only the third veteran John has met who was in that battle north of Dian.
"I was hoping I'd run across somebody like that," John said.
It is what the Vietnam Veterans homecoming in Branson this week is all about, the coming together of soldiers who know one another's stories, who recognize the anguish in one another's eyes.
As many as 40,000 such veterans and their families are expected at the weeklong event, less than half the 100,000 that Operation Homecoming USA had hoped would show up. The exact number will not be known until each registers for the daylong "grand finale tribute" Saturday at nearby Saddlebrooke in the Ozark Mountains, said Bill Perkin of Operation Homecoming.
Watt was one of 26 Vietnam veterans from the Colville Reservation whose way to Branson was paid by the tribe, which has always sought to honor its warriors. Of the estimated 125 enrolled members who fought in Vietnam, all came home alive
The weeklong tribute, 30 years after the end of the war, came too late for some veterans who chose not to attend. But the estimated 4,000 people at Tuesday's opening ceremony at the Grand Palace theater appeared grateful for the two words they came to hear.
"Welcome home, my fellow Vietnam veterans, my mates, welcome home," Veterans Affairs Secretary James Nicholson said.
The decorated Vietnam veteran represented President Bush, who served domestically in the National Guard during the Vietnam era. Nicholson's statement that the Department of Veterans Affairs was doing everything it could for the nation's veterans was met with skepticism by some in the audience. Veteran service organizations have said money for veterans in the federal budget is inadequate to meet the needs of those who fought and are fighting America's battles.
However, Nicholson received loud applause when he stated, "many of you should have been embraced instead of scorned when you came home."
Nicholson went on to compare the current U.S. military action abroad to the struggle in Vietnam when he said the U.S. soldiers and Marines now occupying Iraq and Afghanistan "are walking in our boot prints."
Acknowledgement that the nation was divided over the Vietnam War, much as it is today over the rationale for invading Iraq, had to wait until later in the program during a speech by Gene Crayton, national vice president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. He said that America must not confuse "the warrior with the war."
"We didn't come home to praise," Crayton said of his fellow Vietnam veterans. "We came home to stigma."
As he spoke, the sound of a UH-1 helicopter heard outside the theater was not lost on the audience. "Huey" rides were part of the day's activities planned by Operation Homecoming. The organizers could not have foreseen the emotions the tell-tale chop of the helicopter's rotors evoked within the theater.
After the opening ceremony, John and Watt discussed the battle they had fought many years before. Both lost good friends during the battle that rages still in their minds.
John knew something was wrong that day when his squad entered a river village to find steaming bowls of rice but no one there to eat it. They were ambushed as soon as they crossed the river. John called to his friend – a radio operator named Richard Mills – to get down, but it was too late.
Mills died in John's arms calling for his mother, "just like in the movies." He was one of eight in Delta Company to die that day. Airstrikes had to be called in to help save the rest. Even with the arrival of Alpha Company, the firefight lasted 13 hours.
Later Tuesday, Watt ventured a ride in the Huey.
"It was like I was back in Vietnam." he said. "I was so full of fear and joy" – fear of landing in a "hot LZ," joy for coming down in a friendly town in middle America, instead of a landing zone carved out of an unwelcoming jungle.