At WWII Memorial, veterans pay tribute but question closure

Franco Ordonez

A half-dozen members of Congress clamored in front of cameras to push aside a barricade at the World War II Memorial, where nearly 200 veterans were waiting to enter Wednesday.

The veterans – most of them from Kansas City, many wearing medals won in battle and some in wheelchairs – shook hands and thanked the representatives for ensuring they could see the memorial despite the partial government shutdown. But some also pointedly questioned how Congress could let this happen.

“It’s crazy seeing those people out there wanting to come in and not being able to come in,” said Ted Gault, from Kansas City, Mo., who served in the Air Force during World War II. “And then you meet the senators or representatives who are out here and they’re the ones who are causing the damn problem to start with.”

It was Gault’s first time seeing the memorial built to honor him and other WWII veterans. The 89-year-old and his son strolled through the granite plaza and reflected at the memorial’s fountain, which has been turned off.

The memorial was among the 401 national parks closed because of the partial government shutdown, which began Tuesday. House Republicans have insisted on repeal or delay of the 2010 health care law in return for passing a bill to fund the government. Republicans proposed to appropriate money to reopen the parks and some other popular government offices and services but Democrats refused to agree.

The controversy over access to parks has sparked a backlash, prompting the White House to weigh in and calls for an investigation.

The House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday launched a probe into why the memorials were barricaded. Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., sent a letter to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis criticizing the Obama administration’s restrictions to the memorials.

"Park Service’s decision to barricade the open-air memorials from veterans and other Americans flies in the face of common sense, given their interest in visiting memorials that honor their service and sacrifice to the country," wrote Hastings and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation.

Spokesman Jay Carney defended the White House against accusations that the administration was denying veterans access. Carney said the Department of Interior is making accommodations, likely on First Amendment grounds, to allow future veterans groups to have access to the memorials. He also said Republicans knew the consequences when they approved their budget.

At least two other sets of demonstrators marched and chanted around the memorial on Wednesday. A former Marine held a large sign that read: “Mr. President/Congress: Tear down this wall,” an allusion to President Ronald Reagan’s famous Cold War-era remark to Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev. An earlier Honor Flight group was escorted past the barricades on Tuesday, the first day of the shutdown.

Honor Flights is scheduled to bring some 3,500 veterans to the capital this month to visit memorials, according to the Honor Flight Network, which is funded by donations.

Concerns have grown that an extended shutdown could lead to greater outcry at the National Mall and other parks around the country. During the last government shutdown in 1995, which lasted 28 days, the outcry was so great over national park closures that the Republican governor of Arizona sent National Guard troops to the Grand Canyon in an attempt to keep the park open.

"I literally had hundreds of calls from all over the country from local groups, Boy Scouts, school parties, which had planned on park visits and had to be turned away at the very entrance to the park," said Bruce Babbitt, who was U.S. Interior Secretary in 1995.

Babbitt added that the closures are likely because of concerns about damage to the monuments. No monuments were damaged in 1995, but concern was high because they did not have the needed security as they did before and after the furlough.

"We could not protect the monuments. The monuments are all kind of open, so the lack of protection to historic places of real value is certainly an issue."

The National Park Service said Wednesday it has not tried to stop the veterans from entering the World War II Memorial.

Spokeswoman Carol Johnson said she’s unaware of any plan in place to arrest, or even stop, the veterans or any other groups from breaching the federal barriers.

“The memorial is legally closed,” she said. “We’re asking for cooperation. We’re not seeking a confrontation.”

The members of Congress on hand to greet the veterans included Reps. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo.; Mike Pompeo, R-Kan.; and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Senate Republican leadership who has been critical of the House Republican strategy, also attended. He avoided questions about who was most responsible for the shutdown.

“There is plenty of blame to go around here,” Blunt said. “But the memorial, particularly the open memorials like this, could be available to people during the day without any danger to them or the memorial – particularly open to the very veterans who it was built for.”

John Doole, president of the Kansas-City based Heartland Honor Flight, said he spent eight hours Tuesday ensuring that the veterans would be able to continue with their tour. He was confident that the group would be allowed on the memorial grounds. But he said Rep. Lynn Jenkins, a Kansas Republican, offered to give the group a personal tour of the Capitol if they were denied.

Many of the veterans had been looking forward to the all-expense-paid trip for months. Bob Butler, 92, of Olathe, Kan., who served on the USS Dayton cruiser, was happy to have the opportunity to come to Washington.

But he said the shutdown was a disappointment. He declined to cast any blame on either party.

He sees the shutdown, partly, as a consequence of living in a democracy where leaders have strong views. But that didn’t stop him from poking a little fun at what he sees as Washington’s dysfunction before he visited the wreath honoring Missouri veterans.

“They’re probably doing a better job here than then they do in the Capitol,” he said of the Congress members on hand, chuckling. “But we appreciate what they do for us. And thank goodness if we don’t like them we can get somebody else in.”

By Franco Ordonez
McClatchy Washington Bureau