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They have come from every state in the Union - more than 50,000 veterans and their families. They are here to celebrate Veterans Week in a city that "never forgets our heroes," where businesses proclaim to "hire veterans first" and entertainers proudly announce the units with which they served - to the applause and cheers of fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, National Guardsmen and Marines.
They come for reunions with comrades from campaigns in faraway places and shared sacrifice in long-ago battles. They come here because Tony Orlando's "Yellow Ribbon" melody means something special to them and the parade down Branson's Main Street every Nov. 11 reminds them of - well - America.
For nearly a decade, it has been my great privilege to interview thousands of our active-duty military personnel, veterans and their families. Fox News has sent me to every theater of war in which Americans have fought since World War II - and given me the opportunity to keep company with heroes.
For two years in a row, I have covered this remarkable celebration in Branson. Last year, it was just days after a presidential election - and among the thousands of vets and their families, there was a sense of watchful waiting. Because Americans in general - and veterans in particular - are innately fair, they were willing to give a new commander in chief and his administration a chance to show what he would be like. That "decent interval" is over.
This year, we arrived just four days after the terrible carnage at Fort Hood. Within hours, it was clear that these veterans - normally reticent, rarely outspoken, invariably polite - are, in their terms, "fed up" with our national leadership.
The veterans who spoke with me in Branson this year do not represent all 20 million American veterans and their families - and this is hardly a scientific sampling of public opinion. Everyone here knows I work for Fox News. Most are fans of the network. Some are veterans I have interviewed previously for "War Stories" or for Fox News in Iraq, Afghanistan or here in Branson.
But these men and women really are a cross section of mainstream America. Most served a single "hitch" in the military - about 25 percent are retirees - and all self-identify as respected community leaders at home. Many have sons, daughters or grandchildren serving in the armed forces. Some serve or have served in local or state elected or appointed office, and many volunteered their party affiliation.
This year, as I always do, I asked, "What was the last unit with which you served; where, when; and what did you do when you left the service?" In no case did I ask about politics, nor did I solicit their opinions about the current White House.
Herewith, excerpts from responses elicited from nearly 10 hours of meetings during the course of two days with these great Americans:
c "I served in the 82nd Airborne Division from 1942 to 1945. ... When I came back to the States, we got married, and I went to work for a car dealer. ... We eventually bought the dealership. Two of our sons served in Vietnam. ... What happened at Fort Hood isn't a 'tragedy'; it's a travesty. ... It should never have happened. ... The people who knew about this guy, [Maj. Nidal Malik] Hasan, and did nothing to stop him ought to be fired. All of 'em."
c "In 1950, I was six weeks out of boot camp when I landed with the 1st Marine Division at Inchon, [Korea]. ... We fought our way through Seoul all the way to the 'frozen Chosin.' ... I retired in 1970 as a master gunnery sergeant after two tours in Vietnam. ... Both our sons served as officers in the Corps. ... Our daughter was a Navy nurse in Desert Storm. ... This crowd in Washington scares us. A few months ago they were telling us that our biggest threat was disgruntled veterans and right-wing extremists. ... That's not who's killing Americans."
c "I was drafted in 1969, served in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry, was medically discharged from the Army in 1973 ... came home and married my high school sweetheart. I used the GI Bill to get my degree, taught English for 20 years and retired as the principal of our high school. ... We're Democrats. ... We're sick and tired of being told by this White House not to 'jump to conclusions' or 'rush to judgment' about what happened at Fort Hood. ... How can the president tell us what this guy Hasan did is 'incomprehensible?' What don't they comprehend about militant Islamists?"
c And from a young staff sergeant wearing a Purple Heart medal on his uniform and standing beside his pregnant wife: "I came in because of the attack on 9/11. I've done three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. We agreed I was going to stay in. But if we're not in to win, I'm getting out."
While the sentiments of these veterans may hearten opponents of the Obama administration, it is notable that the overwhelming complaint was leveled not just at the White House - but at Washington. Incumbents: Sound reveille.
Oliver North is the host of "War Stories" on the Fox News Channel, the author of "American Heroes" (B&H Publishing Group, 2008) and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.
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