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Branson rolls out red carpet for A Veterans Homecoming

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by Carol Harris

SBJ Contributing Writer

What started nearly six years ago as a free performance hosted by entertainer Tony Orlando to salute American veterans has spread throughout the Branson community to become a year-round series of events and military reunions.

The largest of the events is the upcoming seven-day A Veterans Homecoming to be held Nov. 5-11.

"We are the largest celebration of veterans in the U.S.," said Debbie Ikerd, executive director of the Branson Veterans Taskforce Inc.

But in addition to

A Veterans Homecoming, there are plenty of other military commemoration events Four Chaplains Sunday Feb. 1; Branson Fest March 18-22; Branson Remembers, A Memorial Day Tribute May 23-25; Flag Day June 14; Spirit of '76 Independence Day July 3-6; and POW-MIA Day Sept. 19.

Ikerd said festivals and events are a new trend in tourism, calling Branson's military celebrations "a major, major media hook."

During the past 18 months, informa-

tion on Branson's military events has reached at least 30 million readers through articles published in such magazines as American Legion, VFW and VFW Auxiliary.

The target market of veterans is large. There are 26 million American veterans who have served in World War I and II, Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. Nationally, 8,000 to 12,000 military reunions are held annually, with Branson hosting about 200 of those each year.

"It offers a new product for tour operators for Branson. It's very important to stay fresh and new in Branson," Ikerd said. "There's not much competition yet. We have a limited window of opportunity." Ikerd conservatively projected the economic impact of veteran reunions to Branson to be $14 million to $20 million in revenue in 1999, based on a $50 per day, per person expenditure for the 200, two-day events to be held next year. "That does not even speak to the publicity we've received," she said.

Offering more than 60 events and special ceremonies, A Veterans Homecoming is expected to attract between 25,000 and 40,000 veterans to Branson in November.

Honored guests at the event will include members of the original U.S. Air Force Tuskegee Airmen; members of Box Car Willie's U.S. Air Force 98th Squadron Reunion; Congressional Medal of Honor recipients, including the first Native American medalist, Ernest Childers; Enola Gay pilot Gen. Paul Tibbets; former Vietnam POWs; and two veterans of World War I.

Ikerd said KY-3 TV will provide a special satellite uplink to serve as a national feed for reporters.

Special events for A Veterans Homecoming will include:

?The traveling Vietnam veterans memorial, "The Wall," to be on display at the Welk Resort Center. As is customary, the names inscribed on The Wall will be read aloud throughout the seven-day period.

?The 64th Annual Veterans Day Parade at 11 a.m. Nov. 11, proceeding through downtown Branson. Congressional Medal of Honor recipients will act as the 1998 grand marshals.

?The free Veterans Reunion Registry and Patch Wall at the Grand Country Square (formerly 76 Music Hall). Spokespersons from the National Office of the American Legion, the Paralyzed Veterans of America and Women's Memorial Foundation will have booths there.

?A display of World War I and World War II aviation prints signed by the actual pilots and crews, displayed at Dick's Oldtime 5 & 10; a display of World War II memorabilia, including Tuskegee Airmen donations, at the Stage Door Canteen at the Welk Resort Center; and an exhibition at The Grand Palace of the military paintings of Richard Rezac and war photographs of Italian photojournalist Gianfranco Moroldo.

?Tony Orlando's Sixth Annual Yellow Ribbon Salute to Veterans free performance at 2 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Talk of the TOWN Theatre.

?The second annual 8K Run, Walk, Roll, sponsored by the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Nov. 7 to raise funds for spinal cord injury research.

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