TERRORISM war a main topic as vets gather in Branson for annual weeklong celebration

Thursday, November 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRANSON, Mo. (AP) _ Rekindled patriotism brought on by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has bolstered a celebration this week in Branson to honor the nation's veterans.

An estimated 150,000 veterans and their families were expected to attend the annual celebration in this resort town, which courts veterans and active-duty military personnel year-round. Organizers expected renewed patriotism and the war in Afghanistan to increase turnout by about 25,000 people.

Branson Mayor Lou Schaefer's voice cracked with emotion as he talked about the thousands of lives lost at the World Trade Center. They, too, are veterans of war, he said.

``With the events that have happened since Sept. 11, we recognize that freedom is not free,'' said Schaefer, a Marine from 1945 to 1947.

The celebration was to include reunions, memorials and musical tributes. The Grand Country Square was turned into a veteran's registry to help people locate those who served in their unit. The Tuskegee Airmen, the famed all-black Air Force bomber unit from World War II, and the Vietnam Traveling Wall were in town.

Several hundred people, including many in uniform, filled the Mark Twain Playhouse on Monday to kick off the celebration.

All of the events lead up to Sunday's annual Veterans Day Parade, said to be one of the country's largest.

Throughout the year in Branson, it is not uncommon for performers to stop their shows and ask veterans to stand and be recognized, or to dedicate a patriotic tune to their military guests.

Eugene Wilson of Houston, Texas, said he hasn't bumped into anyone from his military days, but there is always someone ready to share stories.

``Almost always when we go out to eat, we'll start talking to someone about what went on,'' said Wilson, who served in the Air Force from 1952-62.

This week, talk generally turned to current events in Afghanistan. Wilson praised President Bush for launching airstrikes against Afghanistan after the ruling Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden for his alleged role in the terrorist attacks.

Wilson said he would like to see more ground troops deployed.

``I just don't want it to be another Vietnam or Desert Storm,'' he said. ``If they're going to do the job, let's just do it and get it done.''