Despite ‘closed’ sign, veterans visit WWII Memorial

McClatchy Washington BureauOctober 1, 2013 

— Elderly veterans, white-haired and some in wheelchairs, found their path blocked at the monument erected in their honor.

A sign mounted on metal barricades outside the World War II Memorial announced: “Because of the Federal Government SHUTDOWN, All National Parks Are CLOSED.”

But many of the more than 100 veterans surged past the barricades Tuesday, joined by members of the same Congress that couldn’t pass a bill to keep the government running. The congressmen, tipped off beforehand, removed the barricades for them.

Republican representatives including Steven Palazzo of Mississippi, Richard Nugent of Florida and Louie Gohmert of Texas were among those involved.

“It’s a sad day,” Palazzo said. “We’re doing our veterans a disservice not allowing them inside.”

House Republicans have insisted on repeal or delay of the new health care law in return for passing a bill to fund the government.

Donald Quinn, surrounded by bagpipers, rolled his wheelchair up to the Mississippi column at the memorial and laid a wreath in honor of his fallen comrades. Patrick McCourt, who does World War II re-enactments and greeted the veterans at the memorial, watched the scene unfold.

McCourt said he wasn’t impressed with either party in Congress for the partisan bickering that’s gone on.

“A pox on both their houses,” said McCourt, who served in the signal corps in Washington during the Vietnam War.

The National Park Service did not try to stop the veterans from entering the World War II Memorial. The agency doesn’t have a plan for what to do if veterans show up to visit memorials; Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said it will be up to the park police how to react if there are similar incidents.

“I can say we always treat the veterans with respect,” Johnson said. “We will treat them with respect.”

The veterans from Mississippi and Iowa came on Honor Flights, which arrive nearly every day in Washington.

More than 3,500 Honor Flight veterans are scheduled to visit Washington this month, said Jim McLaughlin, the chairman of the Honor Flight Network, which is funded by donations. He said it’s too late to cancel the visits, which will bring veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam to Washington.

“Today they were able to get in and see the memorial,” he said. “We’re hoping the same will be true tomorrow.”

Johnson said visitor safety was a concern, since rangers who are trained in first aid and CPR are typically on duty at the sites.

The rangers also protect the memorials from vandalism, Johnson said. She cited an incident this summer in which a woman spattered green paint on Washington landmarks, including the Lincoln Memorial.

“People are very disappointed, they don’t understand why it is closed,” said Johnson, standing in front of the World War II Memorial. “Some people are angry.”

Johnson said she wasn’t being paid on Tuesday and that it would be her last day of work until there’s funding.

Christina Stuebe and Paul Hampton of the Biloxi Sun Herald contributed.

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