Thousands reconnect in Melbourne at one of the largest veterans reunions in the nation


The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, which is displayed at the reunion, serves as a place to reflect and remember those who were killed in the war.

SENIOR LIFE R. Norman Moody

More than 47 years after he returned from serving five years in the war in Vietnam, retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Juan Santiago still scans the faces at Florida’s 30th annual Vietnam and All Veterans Reunion.
“I’ve met guys that I was in combat with that I had not seen in a long time,” he said.
Santiago, who lives in Viera, is the kind of person for whom there are no strangers. He easily stretches his hand out for a firm handshake with people he’s never met before, and for a warm friendly greeting for those he knows. 
He always has been willing to share his ideas and knowledge about military service whenever I call him when reporting on a story. He also loves talking to young people about military service.
At one of the annual reunions, he approached and talked to another veteran, inquiring how he was doing and welcoming him home.
“I’m OK now that I’ve talked to you,” the man, with whom Santiago has since lost contact, told him. “You were the first person I talked to when I first got to Vietnam in 1966.”
The years had faded some of the memories of serving together, but the man provided some of the details that helped Santiago recall the past.
Santiago said the encounters are one of the main things that keeps bringing him back to the reunion year after year.
I have written about the reunion for more than a decade now. The Vietnam War is an interesting part of history that would keep me coming back even if I were not writing about the reunion. Everyone can learn by hearing some of that history directly from the veterans who lived it.
While there are new faces each year, I encounter many of the same veterans year after year. They will tell you they come for the camaraderie that only those who served can share. They can talk about things that they don’t share even with family.
Some of the veterans said that the closeness comes after they’ve spent time at war together, sharing their rations, jokes and about family.
“We’re considered like brothers, Santiago said.
And it’s not only for Vietnam veterans, though they are the majority. More and more veterans of the most recent wars are attending the reunion, which usually is held in April or May.
An estimated 85,000 people attended the reunion last year, which takes place over several days at Wickham Park. But on the first official day of the reunion this year, organizers already had been expecting more people.
Reunion committee member Melvin “Ted” Whitlock said he believes more people came this year because they were afraid it would be the last reunion.
“It’s the 30th and some think it’s the last,” he said. “It’s not. We already set the date for next year,” April 19 through the 22nd.’’