The greatest generation and the newest generation of Fort Worth came together Tuesday at the World War II Memorial.
Twenty four veterans from Second World War and the Korean War and 80 8th graders from Trinity Valley School enjoyed a visit to the memorial, officially closed during the government shutdown, but open to veterans groups – and others who moved the barriers to get in.
Texas Republican Reps. Joe Barton, Michael Burgess, Kenny Marchant and Roger Williams, along with Sen. Ted Cruz were there, too, helping ensure that the memorial stayed open, but the day belonged to the veterans.
“It’s fantastic,” said a chipper Charles Vermillion, a WWII Marine from Arlington who served in the Marshall Islands and Okinawa. Like many of the veterans, he was in a wheelchair and wore a cap noting the war he served in.
“You kind of relive history a little bit out here,” he said. “Some of it is good. Some of it is bad.”
Trinity Valley students, whose trip was upended by the shutdown, were excited about seeing the memorial and the folding flag ceremony for the Texas veterans, which came together at the last minute with members of the Scottish American Military Society in kilts and a bugler who played “taps.”
“It’s just cool to see all the veterans coming back,” said eighth grader Benji Berkowitz.
There were two 90-year-old women veterans from Tarrant County, Jackie Williams of Arlington, a naval nurse in World War II and who continues to work as a volunteer at Mission Arlington, and Elsie Martin of Peaster, a Navy secretary. Martin was one of six out of nine siblings who served in the war.
“That’s why we won it,” she quipped.
Barton thanked the several hundred people that gathered by the Atlantic Theater section of the memorial near the Texas pillar. Each of the 48 states in the union at the time of the war has a pillar decorated with metal wreaths, as do each of the U.S. territories. Barton choked up as he spoke of his father, who served in Italy.
“To the day he died in 1996,” the congressman said, “he said the proudest thing he did was to serve our country in World War II.”
The Honor Flight trips of war veterans to the memorial have become symbolic of the shutdown, with lawmakers escorting the serviceman – Marchant pushed Vermillion’s wheelchair – as a sign of mostly Republican protests to the closures. The American Legion objected Friday to veterans being made “pawns” in the impasse, although the standoff with veterans and the National Park Service, which operates memorials and the National Mall, has been largely won by the veterans.
However, the central fountains that add majesty and balance to the mammoth memorials were turned off.
“We are allowing the First Amendment demonstration to go forward,” said Park Ranger Sandra Tennyson, who was standing by the barricaded entrance that faced the Washington Monument. “Our main job is to inform visitors that it’s closed.” Periodically another ranger would close the barricade until someone trying to get out would ask that it be opened.
Australian tourists Mark and Cherryl Kennedy had to talk their way out and seemed confused by the process.
“The shutdown is disappointing,” said Mark Kennedy, “especially since we came from halfway around the world.”
The couple was in D.C. last year for a day and promised themselves they’d return for a longer stay to enjoy the memorials and museums.
Air Force Korean War veteran Raymond Wadsworth said, “It’s a great day to be here. It’s just overwhelming that this many people came here to be with us.”
Trinity Valley School principal Michael Kris, who brought the students after he learned of the event from a Star-Telegram reporter, said he was moved by the youngsters thanking the elderly veterans for their service.
“I can’t imagine a better history lesson,” he said.
Many of the young people surrounded the vets in their wheelchairs and talked to them, to the delight of both. Wadsworth was charmed that he had half a dozen young women hanging on his every word.
“Freedom is not free,” he said. “You have to fight for it.”
“I’m glad our schedule got canceled because we wouldn’t have had this opportunity,” said Trinity Valley eighth grader Brianna Hudson.
“It’s almost better to be here now because we get to see history happen,” added classmate Kerry MacKenzie said
Mollie Sloter, another Trinity Valley student, thanked Wadsworth for his service and said that her grandfather had been in the Army.
“I think it’s really cool to hear the stories,” she said.
Sloter’s family is Jewish and who said that coming the memorial helped make up for not being able to go to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, also closed with the shutdown.
Student Sophia Castro summed the shutdown experience succinctly: “Good and bad switched.”
Cruz, at the center of the shutdown fight, was a big hit with the crowd, with several people shouting out “President Cruz.”
“It’s a tremendous honor to be able to welcome our veterans who risked everything to defend our freedom,” Cruz told the Star-Telegram.
Burgess said that his parents met in the Navy, but were unable to visit the memorial during their lifetimes.
“I get a lot of vicarious enjoyment seeing the veterans come and see the memorial,” he said in an interview.
“This reminds us this is the world’s greatest generation,” said Williams.
By Maria Recio
McClatchy Washington Bureau