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The Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Reunion is part of what saved him.

After Jaimie Obrecht returned home in March 1969 from a year-long tour in Vietnam, it didn't sink in right away. 

To his friends, it was almost as if he had never left. The young Marine Corps. veteran signed up for college classes, got married and had a child.

On the outside, Obrecht was fine — but the invisible wounds left by the war wouldn't heal.

Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn't yet a recognized disease, Obrecht said, so he self-medicated, drowning his sorrows in alcohol until 1984. 

The day he walked out of a prison program for incarcerated veterans, he realized it was time to dramatically change his life.

When he was asked to help organize the first Nebraska Vietnam Veterans Reunion just a year later, it became part of his healing.

The reunion switches locations each year, although Obrecht said it's grown too large for some of the smaller towns now, as attendance usually reaches 450 people.

This year, veterans and family flocked to the Marriott Cornhusker Hotel this weekend to listen to speakers, watch movies and connect with other vets.

It's the camaraderie, Obrecht said, that keeps him going.

"It's a lot like a family reunion."

One of the goals, Obrecht said, is to make veterans who have never participated in the reunion or other veteran-focused events feel welcome. 

Obrecht tries to get to know everyone; seeing the vets return year after year is part of the fun.

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Duane Wiskus and wife Jeri have been attending the reunion for six years. It feels good to surrounded by so many people who understand what he's been through, Duane said.

"Only my brothers and sisters know what's really in my heart," he said. 

After struggling with PTSD and severe side effects from Agent Orange, Duane said his wife is the person who saved him.

He lost his son at age 3 after he was born with infantile muscular dystrophy, which doctors suspected was tied to Duane's Agent Orange exposure.

"Me, I can handle the heart attacks and not being able to see," Duane said. "But when I lost my boy to Agent Orange — that took the cake." 

Despite the bad days or the long list of medications and health problems, Jeri stands beside Duane, using every chance to support him.

"A lot falls on the wives," Duane said. "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't be here today."

At the reunion, she sells hand-blown glass lampwork beads swirled with red, yellow and green to represent Vietnam veterans. Each color signifies a portion of the war. The colors were used to create service medals. 

Now, when the couple sees someone wearing something that signifies they're a veteran, Duane has something to give them. He hands them beads and thanks them.

While the beads may be small their impact isn't. It's all part of the healing process, both for Duane and for other veterans. Even the littlest of things can help.

Obrecht said he doesn't know that he'll ever be healed — healing implies finality, he said, and the reality he faces is an ongoing transformation.

"I think there is post-traumatic growth where people come out being kinder and more compassionate," he said. "Now, it's not easy and it's certainly not automatic, but it is possible."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7241 or twilliams@journalstar.com.

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