Soldier's Wish Executive Director Kevin McDugle, American Legion Americanism Deputy Director Richard Smith and Soldier's Wish ambassador Lyndie Cason participate in Branson, Mo., Veterans Day Parade.

Legion, Soldier’s Wish honor veterans in Branson

The American Legion and Soldier’s Wish teamed up earlier this month in Branson, Mo., for the "Branson Veterans Homecoming." The week-long celebration – considered to be the country’s largest Veterans Day celebration – was filled with events and activities honoring U.S. veterans, active-duty military personnel and their families. The Traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall also made an appearance during the week.

More than 50,000 veterans and another 175,000 guests were in Branson during the week; many were briefed on the Legion-Soldier’s Wish relationship by Richard Smith, deputy director of the Legion’s Americanism Division. Smith shared the mission of both the Legion and Soldier’s Wish with visitors, as well as educated them about the needs of veterans and active-duty communities, encouraging the public to participate in meeting the needs of many through volunteerism and other means.

Smith also participated in Branson’s 78th Annual Veterans Day Parade which was sponsored by American Legion Post 220 in Branson. Later that evening, Tony Orlando provided a Yellow Ribbon Salute at the Welk Resort Branson. The Yellow Ribbon Salute is a concert that Orlando has performed for the past 20 years. It has always been free to all veterans, active-duty military and their family members; it was Orlando’s final such concert. Orlando presented Soldier’s Wish with a special award on stage and offered to help support the organization.

The Legion and Soldier’s Wish also had a 53-foot semi truck in Branson for the week. The semi had a prominent position near Walmart’s Tribute to Heroes, where more than 2,000 veterans received a free show from 17 Branson entertainers.

During the week, Smith also came across a despondent homeless veteran. Smith, who taught in the Military Sciences Department at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, drew from that experience when reaching out to the veteran.

"I often told my students to shake the hand of our military personnel and especially give thanks," Smith said. "In addition, I asked these students/cadets to listen. The veteran that I met that day just wanted someone to listen. After 20 minutes of meeting this gentleman, he conveyed to me that he was ready to let go of life. I asked him why and asked him to walk with me. Together, we walked, smiled and shed a tear. After two hours, the professional folks from the local VA hospital arrived to assist.

"We spent about two and a half hours together and never exchanged names. What I will always remember about that trip is that I have a brother who found the strength to live and fight another day. He figured it out – not me. All I did was listen."