WASHINGTON — Wheelchair-bound elderly veterans pushed aside barricades to tour the World War II Memorial Tuesday morning, in defiance of the government shutdown which closed all of the memorials in the nation’s capital.
The four bus loads of veterans — visiting from Mississippi as part of a once-in-a-lifetime Honor Flight tour — ignored National Park Police instructions not to enter the site as lawmakers and tourists cheered them on.
“We didn’t come this far not to get in,” one veteran proclaimed.
The scene was both emotional and comical at once. After it was clear they had lost control of the situation, Park Police officials stood aside, telling press that they had “asked for guidance on how to respond” to the breach of security.
As 80-something veterans slowly walked around the massive war memorial, Park Police stood quietly to the side, advising other tourists that the site was technically still closed. But they made no moves to stop the wishes of the war heroes.
The memorial was closed because of the government shutdown that started 11 hours earlier, after lawmakers failed to pass a temporary budget plan to keep nonessential federal programs operating. Republicans and Democrats have been stalled in budget fight for weeks, mostly over legislative add-ons dealing with the new healthcare law.
As a result, more than 800,000 federal employees were furloughed Tuesday, set to return only after Congress reaches a compromise. National parks and federal buildings were closed down. And the WWII Memorial — along with the Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, and much of the rest of the Capitol — were barricaded, to keep tourists away.
Several Republican lawmakers were on hand to greet the Mississippi Honor Flight veterans at the memorial on Tuesday and nodded thoughtfully as the greatest generation representatives voiced their displeasure at being turned away from their own memorial.
Organizers said the trip took months of planning and nearly $100,000 in donations for airfare, food and buses. A dozen more are scheduled in the next week.
“It’s great to be here, but it’s really disappointing that we can’t get closer to see it,” said Gene Tolley, a Marine Corps veteran who served in the Pacific during the war. “I came through the city back in high school, but I was looking forward to coming back and seeing this.”
He got his wish.
As Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, distracted a Park Police representative, other lawmakers and their staff helped topple the metal fences. A bagpiper on hand for the event led the men past the crowd and into the heart of the memorial, attracting a large, applauding crowd.
“This just means so much to me,” said Alex “Lou” Pitalo, an Army vet who also served in the Pacific during WWII. “I waited 70 years to get a welcome like this. And to get to see this and to have all those people clapping … I’m just so happy. This was amazing.”
Officials from the Honor Flight network, which organized the tour, said they have advised upcoming trip planners that the memorials will not be open to the public, and to plan accordingly.
Meanwhile, at press time, Park Police said they were still reviewing how to handle similar problems in the future, since they still have no indication when the government shutdown will be resolved.