WASHINGTON — They fought a war and flew in at dawn from Mississippi, so a few barricades provoked little more than shrugs from the 91 World War II veterans who crossed political lines Tuesday to walk and wheel around their memorial on the National Mall.
The vets in three buses pulled up to the Memorial at 11:20 a.m. and were greeted by a group of congressmen who said they were determined to ensure the vets from the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight would have the full experience of the monument.
With the vets in their red shirts and medal-bedecked caps lined up at the barricades, the congressmen, led by Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., moved aside the barriers and escorted the vets into the memorial and past signs that read: Because of federal government shutdown, all national parks and memorials are closed.
The vets, led by a volunteer bagpiper Bill Greener of the D.C Fire Department who played patriotic songs, strolled around the memorial and posed for photos as U.S. Park Police and Park Service rangers looked on.
National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson stood by as the congressmen moved the barriers and walked onto the site. It is up to the U.S. Park Police to enforce the closure.
"This is so meaningful to the vets," Johnson said. "The main thing is we'd like to get back to work and welcome visitors again."
The federal government shutdown that began at midnight Monday did not exempt the National Park Service.
The National Mall and memorials' 330 employees are furloughed. Only three employees are exempt: the chief of maintenance, the deputy superintendent, and the project manager who is overseeing repairs to the Washington Monument, Johnson said.
The Washington Monument repairs will continue through the shutdown since Congress had already approved the money for them, she said.
Park Service employees came to work Tuesday to erect the barriers and turn off the fountains. It will take them through Wednesday to fully close all the federal parks and sites under their jurisdiction, Johnson said. After that, no maintenance people or park rangers are permitted to work, she said.
Honor Flights filled with veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam arrive everyday in Washington. The one-day trips, organized by volunteers and funded by donations, seek to give veterans an opportunity to visit the monuments dedicated to their service.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight began organizing Tuesday's visit, their sixth trip, in May. Spokesman Wayne Lennep, a volunteer whose regular job is designing electrical systems for Arleigh Burke class destroyers at Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., said it cost $90,000 and hundreds of hours of planning to get the 91 vets, ages 84 to 99, to Washington.
They planned to eat a picnic lunch at the Air Force Memorial, because they heard the restrooms remained open there, and finish their day by laying a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery.
As the shutdown loomed, Lennep said his worries multiplied.
"This is really the only chance many of them will get to see their memorial," Lennep said. "We didn't know where and when the dominoes would fall."
In a final phone call before boarding the plane in Gulfport, Miss., at 8 a.m., Lennep learned the memorial remained open. But by the time the buses pulled in front, the Park Service had erected the barriers. Then, the congressmen simply moved aside the metal gate and led the veterans onto the apron of marble commemorating the greatest battles of the war as dozens of media captured every moment.
"It played out very well, even more so because the shutdown drew more attention to the event and the service of the veterans," Lennep said. "I hope they saw how ridiculous it would be to keep the veterans out of their own memorial."
Talmadge Byrd, 92, of Van Cleave, Miss., served in the Navy during WWII. He has been to Washington before but this was his first time seeing the World War II Memorial. He said he was happy to walk around it, but would have been grateful even if he could see it only from the sidewalk.
"It's just one of those things, not much we can do about it," he said of the shutdown. "They'll get it straight eventually. I can't blame anyone."
Sally Blythe, 90, who worked as a control tower operator in Texas for the Army Air Corps, said the memorial brought back memories and made her wish her husband, Billie, could have shared the experience with her. He died last year.
The couple met during the war when he served as a radio operator. One night in August 1946 they left their shift at midnight and he offered her a ride to her barracks. They sat in the car and talked until 2 a.m., she said. The couple married in October 1946 and were together for 65 years, nine months and two days, she said.
She recalls the war years as a time of great patriotism and service, and says she is disappointed in how the government is behaving today.
"I think every time Congress passes a law, it should apply to them, too. Instead the poor people don't get paid while they are still making their salary," Blythe said. "If they do what they are supposed to do, this wouldn't have happened."
Blythe traveled to the World War II Memorial with several other women who live at the Armed Forces retirement home in Gulfport. She is among 12 women who once posed naked for a calendar to raise money for a feeding program for the homeless. The group, all in their 80s and 90s, raised $20,000.
Sally Manning, 88, served in the hospital corps in Boston during the war.
"It's very emotional to be here," she said. "It's hard to express what I feel. At the time, you just lived it and didn't think about it. As the years go by, you realize what a terrible, horrible time it was. You were deprived of everything that was normal."
She also recalled it as a time of great patriotism. Now, she says, she is disappointed in the government.
"I think they are behaving like 5-year-old children, both sides," she said. "If they can't sit down together and solve problems for the good of the country, it is childish."
A second group of veterans on an Honor Flight expedition pulled up to the World War II Memorial as the Mississippi group left. They had left Ames, Iowa, at 3 a.m. to make the trek, said Dean Nelson, 81, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War.
He said it brought tears to his eyes to stand before the wall of stars representing the war dead. Each of the 4,048 stars represents 100 Americans who died.
"That's a lot of suffering," he said.
Nelson said he has two words to say about the shutdown: "It stinks."
"Democrats, Republicans, neither party will give an inch," he said. "To me, they are not thinking about the country. They are only thinking about their own parties."
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