Park Service Deems WWII Visits a First Amendment Demonstration, Doesn't Block Vets

WASHINGTON – Hundreds of veterans were able to access the shuttered World War II Memorial on Wednesday, a day after another group demanded access at a closed gate and forced their way in with the help of a few members of Congress.

The National Mall’s memorials are closed as part of the government shutdown, with barricades placed around them Tuesday morning after the government shutdown took effect at midnight.

That did not stop the veterans from visiting the memorial Tuesday, when a group of Honor Flight veterans visited the memorial and a handful of lawmakers led by Reps. Steve Palazzo (R-Miss.) and Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) helped to move barricades to allow the group inside the WWII Memorial.

The memorial, opened in 2004, is an open-air memorial open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As of Tuesday morning, however, barricades and tape blocking access to visitors have surrounded the entire area.

A day after the initial act of civil disobedience, hundreds of veterans on Honor Flights, despite warnings from the National Park Service that all national monuments were closed to the public, traveled to Washington, D.C., from Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. Members of Congress, led by Bachmann, met the groups at the WWII Memorial and removed the barriers around 11:00 a.m.

Arriving Wednesday morning, the veterans, many of them in wheelchairs and escorted by Honor Flight Network guardians, found the barricades open for them on one side of the memorial.

Parks police did not prevent the first group from entering Tuesday, nor did they interfere with the Wednesday groups.

The memorial was surrounded by dozens of onlookers who applauded the veterans as they made their way to the memorial.

Several lawmakers were also in tow to greet the veterans. Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and Reps. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), Ann Wagner (R-Mo.), Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas), and Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) were among a growing group of lawmakers on site at the memorial.

“There shouldn’t be any politics associated with the World War II Memorial, there shouldn’t be any politics associated with these veterans, whose communities have raised money so they can be here,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.).

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said it was “tacky” that lawmakers were there to score political points.

“There’s people here who have nothing to do,” said McCaskill, who was there to greet a group of veterans from Missouri. ”They’re just trying to score a political point.”

Five Honor Flights were planned for this week, with many more scheduled until Thanksgiving.

Carol Johnson, a National Park Service spokeswoman, said the veterans groups had been granted access Wednesday because it was deemed a First Amendment demonstration. The memorial was still closed to the public, but the media, lawmakers and some curious onlookers were also able to get through the barricade.

Veteran Bo Bohannon of Kansas told the lawmakers greeting him at the memorial on the warm October morning that he was happy to see them out there.

“I like seeing politicians sweat,” he told lawmakers.

Bohannon said both parties were at fault for the shutdown.

“I just blame them for not being able to get together. I think they’re both equal,” he said.

Since 2005, thousands of veterans began taking free trips, funded by donations, to visit their memorial. They make the trip from all over the nation to Washington, where they visit their memorial to commemorate the years they served, and those who served with them who are no longer alive, or capable of making the trip.

Another WWII veteran, Bob Platt of Kansas, said he was concerned he would not be able to visit the memorial after he heard about the government shutdown.

“I’ve had this planned for a long time,” he said. “I want to thank the members of Congress who made this possible.”

But not all veterans had kind words for Congress.

“They just refuse to comprise,” said WWII veteran Rob Bibby of Missouri. “When I was [in the Pacific], we served our country. They need to have the same philosophy in Congress.”

Some veterans found the media attention overwhelming, as several news outlets swarmed the entrance to the memorial.  A veteran from Kansas told PJM he felt that they were on exhibition and hoped to see the memorial in peace.

House Republican lawmakers pushed piecemeal budget plans under a fast-track procedure that required two-thirds majority for passage on Tuesday evening that would have opened the memorial and other national parks. The bill would have also funded veterans affairs and allowed the District of Columbia to use local revenue to fund government.

House Republican leaders brought those bills up again on Wednesday with time for more floor debate, and a lower, simple-majority threshold for passage. They sent the national parks and D.C. bills on to the Senate.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) offered Wednesday afternoon to pay for security staff to keep the memorial open.

“The Obama administration has decided they want to make the government shutdown as painful as possible, even taking the unnecessary step of keeping the Greatest Generation away from a monument built in their honor,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

Speaking to reporters at the WWII Memorial, Priebus announced the RNC’s offer.

“That’s not right, and it’s not fair," he said. "So the RNC has put aside enough money to hire five security personnel to keep this memorial open to veterans and visitors."

The Democratic National Committee answered this with an email to supporters calling it a “meaningless stunt.”

SEE PICTURES OF TODAY'S EVENT ON THE NEXT PAGE

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