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They had already waited more than four decades for a warm welcome home from the war, so the Vietnam veterans from Nebraska weren't complaining about a few more minutes Monday night.

They were gathered on the second floor of the Lincoln Airport, waiting for the last of the four Honor Flight jets to return from Washington. Then the 650 vets who had spent a long, full day touring the nation's war memorials and monuments would begin descending to the main level together, to be embraced by the crowd as one.

Until then, though, they stayed upstairs, shaking the governor’s hand, reuniting with their spouses -- who had their own busy day here at home -- and getting ready for their homecoming.

“I’m good, I can handle it,” said Gene Buhman, a former sailor from York, taking a long pause before speaking again. “This feels really good to realize how much people care.”

Rick Siebert of Fairbury didn’t see anything like this when he returned from the war. His parents were there for him at the airport, but nobody else.

“It almost makes you feel guilty, because I got to come home, when 50,000 guys didn’t.”

Downstairs and outside, well-wishers were gathering by the thousands. The Waverly High School band was playing the Army song and then the Husker fight song. Boy Scouts were selling hot dogs and chips. The growing crowd was waving U.S. flags and bearing preprinted and handmade signs, welcoming home Gary and Ron and Gene.

The airport ceremonies had been a part of the other trips hosted by organizer Patriotic Productions since 2008, but they’d become more important for the flights carrying Vietnam veterans.

Last year in Omaha, an estimated 5,000 people stayed up late to greet the vets.

Organizers had predicted 7,000 could show up in Lincoln -- seven times the airport’s average daily traffic.

And they appeared close. By 8 p.m., traffic was backing up over the bridge near Northwest 12th, near the airport motels.

Dave and Cindy Olson of Tekamah had already been waiting several hours. They had four friends on the Honor Flight, and they wanted to be there in time to greet them.

Dave Olson stood up from his lawn chair across from the terminal and looked at all of the people and the flags and the signs.

This will mean a lot to his friends, he said. The whole experience will.

“They were pretty emotional when they left,” he said. “One of them said they didn’t sleep at all last night.”

B.A. Fisser of Lincoln was standing outside, along the parade route, to welcome two of her cousins. “I think this will be the perfect end to a perfect day,” she said.

Closer to 9 p.m., the terminal erupted when the first vets appeared on the balcony above, like they were rock stars. The crowd roared and chanted “U.S.A.” and sang “This Land is Your Land.”

Buhman, from York, took it all in. Times were different when he returned from the Navy, he said.

“We didn’t have this when we came home. So it really means a lot.”

The last plane was late, so the organizers were starting the reception. The vets at the front of the line took the stairs and the escalator to the first floor, and the crowd closed in.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter.

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Reporter

Peter Salter is a reporter.

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