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Vietnam War veterans belatedly ‘come home’ by the thousands


 Vietnam vets Bruce Bowland, of Gladwin, Mich., left, and J.C. Terry, of Sacramento, Calif., embrace at
Vietnam vets Bruce Bowland, of Gladwin, Mich., left, and J.C. Terry, of Sacramento, Calif., embrace at "Welcome Home: America's Tribute to Vietnam Veterans" in Branson, Mo., on Monday. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Phillip O'Connor St. Louis Post-Dispatch

BRANSON, Mo. – Until now, Butch Meilinger had avoided Vietnam veterans’ reunions.

“It took me awhile to get my head together, so this is my first one,” said Meilinger, 58, of Wind Gap, Pa., as he milled with hundreds of other veterans in the parking lot of the Grand Palace Hotel.

Monday marked the beginning of “Welcome Home: America’s Tribute to Vietnam Veterans,” a weeklong celebration for Vietnam veterans in the Branson area that organizers call “the homecoming you never received.”

Organizers initially predicted the week could draw up to 100,000 visitors to the Branson area but have revised the estimate to between 35,000 and 50,000.

Meilinger did a tour in Vietnam with the Marines in 1967 and 1968 and was wounded. For years, he struggled with the lingering effects of his physical and psychological injuries but found little help.

“It’s hard to talk to people and have them understand,” he said.

But after encouragement from fellow vets, Meilinger went to the Veterans Administration a few years ago and began receiving counseling and other assistance.

He made the trip to Branson with more than 40 other veterans from his area, including Dan Zrinski, 57, of Bethlehem, Pa., who recalled his homecoming decades ago.

“Nobody did anything for us,” said Zrinski, who did two tours as a Marine in Vietnam and also was wounded. “This kind of makes you feel good. But there’s still a bitter taste, and it’s not going to go away.”

Organizers received many phone calls and e-mail messages from veterans who criticized the tribute as too little, too late. Some said lodging, food and entertainment all should be free.

But event organizer Gary Linderer said, “We’re hoping this is a major healing event down here.”

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