BRANSON, Mo. -- Thirty years after the last U.S. forces left Vietnam, tens of thousands of veterans of that conflict gathered here in the Ozark Mountains today to get the official welcome home and thanks they never received.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs R. James Nicholson, a Vietnam veteran himself, thanked his fellow veterans who "were there to share and shoulder the burden of the Vietnam War on behalf of our country."
Nicholson addressed the group during today's opening ceremonies for "Operation Homecoming USA."
"It is my privilege as your comrade and as your secretary of Veterans Affairs to thank you for your service and your sacrifice," Nicholson told the group at The Grand Palace theater. He extended his appreciation to families and loved ones "who worried about us and prayed for us" while in Vietnam.
The weeklong Operation Homecoming USA is planned as a belated homecoming celebration and a time of healing for veterans who still bear the scars of the war, explained Skip Palmer, an event organizer and Vietnam veteran.
"We carried the burden of the anti-war protests ourselves, and a lot of veterans are still carrying that burden," Palmer said. "This is a symbolic opportunity to help them lift that burden."
Many Vietnam veterans received no acknowledgements when they returned from the war, and those who did were often scorned rather than embraced.
"We got the spits, the yells, the eggs. It wasn't fun," said Will Boyd, a former Marine who served two back-to-back tours in Vietnam between 1969 and 1971. "I'm here to bury a 35-year-old resentment."
Gary Baly, a sailor who ran river boat patrols in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, admits he "held a lot inside for many years" after returning home from the war. "I'm hoping this will be a chance for me to let some of that out," he said of his visit to Branson.
Some participants, like Don Brown, who served in Vietnam with the 1st Air Cavalry in 1969 to 1970, said they came to Operation Homecoming USA because they wanted to be part of "a historic event."
"There's a brotherhood of Vietnam veterans, and I wanted to be a part of this," he said.
The city of Branson gave a royal welcome to the Operation Homecoming USA participants, with flags and signs everywhere greeting the veterans and thanking them for their service. By the week's end, Branson is expected to host 35,000 to 50,000 veterans, organizers predict.
"It seems like this city has really opened up its arms to the veteran," said Steven Schroder, who served in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1970 and 1971. "It feels good and gives me a lot of pride."
Festivities during the week include a parade, military reunions, award ceremonies, golf and fishing tournaments, aircraft displays and concerts by many of the performers who entertained troops during United Service Organizations shows in Vietnam.
Among the featured artists at the June 18 closing ceremony will be the Beach Boys, the Fifth Dimension, the Doobie Brothers, the Supremes with Mary Wilson, the Oak Ridge Boys, Tony Orlando, Les Brown Jr. and Ann-Margret. Former Armed Forces radio disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, of "Good Morning, Vietnam!" fame, will also participate in the activities, as well as the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales.
President Bush will thank the group for their service and sacrifice through a videotaped message, to be played during the closing ceremonies, and troops currently serving in Baghdad will send thanks via a live video feed.
"There won't be a dry eye in the house," one organizer promised.
Operation Homecoming USA's reach will extend beyond the Ozarks. Throughout the week, Major League Baseball franchises nationwide will feature salutes to Vietnam and other veterans during their games, Palmer said.
But the event is more than a big party, offering a variety of demonstrations and events that return veterans to their Vietnam experience. They can take rides in UH-1 Huey helicopters, attend military demonstrations and displays, watch an air show, and sit through presentations by representatives of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
Tents stretching throughout the main staging area at The Grand Palace theater offer participants an opportunity to sign up for counseling or veterans benefits, learn about veterans organizations or simply catch up with former comrades.
Throughout the venue, veterans were seen shaking hands, slapping backs, sharing laughs and occasionally tears as they caught up on times passed.
"This is wonderful," said Boyd. "It's the family -- the Marine Corps family, the military family. This is my lost tribe."
"I'm honored to be in the company of comrades with whom I shared a life experience like no other," Nicholson told the group. "We may not have served side by side or in one particular place or time together. ...(But) the bonds that join us are strong."
Much of the emphasis during Operation Homecoming USA will be on a quiet reflection of those bonds. Stretching in front of The Grand Palace is a three-quarter-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, engraved with the names of more than 58,000 veterans who died in Southwest Asia.
Thousands of veterans and their families crowded along the "Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall," the largest of several "traveling" Vietnam memorial walls, to find the names of comrades or loved ones lost in the war.
Baly, the former sailor, said he's never been to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, but planned to spend time at the replica in Branson. "I think I'm ready to take a look at that wall," he said. "It's kind of scary."
Dewey Riehn, who served in Vietnam with the 524th Military Intelligence Detachment, said he's hopeful that this week's events will help remind the American public and young people with no memory of the Vietnam War about the tremendous sacrifices made in Vietnam.
"We want people to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "When you look at those names on the wall -- they all had hopes, aspirations, dreams and families that will never be realized. And it's important that we remember them and what they did."
Nicholson promised the veterans the United States would not forget those sacrifices or the fate of missing prisoners of war and will stand by Vietnam veterans to ensure they get the benefits they deserve.
"You selflessly put yourselves in harm's way," he said. "And I pledge to you that Vietnam veterans will always receive the care and respect from your government that you deserve."