Park service: Honor Flight visits are a ‘First Amendment activity’
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 2, 2013
WASHINGTON — World War II vets are allowed back in their war memorial now, shutdown or no shutdown.
A day after hundreds of tourist veterans took over the closed down World War II Memorial in the heart of the Nation’s Capital, the United States Park Police announced that planned Honor Flight visits to the monument are considered “First Amendment activities,” which are allowed regardless of the government’s operating status.
The news came at the same times as several hundred veterans from Missouri and Kansas roamed the memorial, in defiance of federal orders that the site was not open to the public. It ended some — but not all — of the circus atmosphere at the somber monument, which pays tribute to the 16 million troops who served in that war.
The memorial has been closed since midnight Tuesday morning because of the government shutdown resulting from Congress’ failure to pass a budget plan to start the new fiscal year.
Early Wednesday, Honor Flight organizers told reporters that the veterans would again be touring the site, regardless what the federal rules were. Planning for each once-in-a-lifetime veterans tour takes months to organize and tens of thousands of dollars in donations.
“We know this isn’t the park service’s fault, but we also know no one is going to arrest a World War II vet for visiting his memorial,” said Jeff Miller, co-founder of the Honor Flight Network.
“We don’t want this to become politicized. But we’ve made a habit of not letting our veterans down.”
So when the veterans arrived, they were greeted by supporters waving miniature American flags and lawmakers thanking them for their service.
Republican lawmakers berated Park Service representatives and the White House for the shutdown rules, while Democrats on hand blasted the GOP for allowing new health care act objections to derail normal federal operations.
At one point, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., was accosted by a passerby who blamed her style of politics for Congressional ineptitude. A high school class visiting from Michigan posed beside a sign reading “Tear down this wall” and mocked the metal gates closing the site.
One volunteer serenaded the veterans with “Amazing Grace” as they assembled inside the memorial. Others had trouble getting into the site because of the crush of news cameras.
“Yes, this could be becoming a circus here,” admitted Rep. John Carter, R-Texas. “But that barricade they put up is a circus. These (visiting veterans) are at an age where they might not get another chance to see this place. So, to refuse them is just wrong.”
White House officials had no comment on the scene or whether anyone had discussed jailing the veterans for trespassing on federal property.
Park officials said the new “First Amendment activity” distinction would be in place for all future Honor Flight visits to the site, although they could not say whether it carried for other monuments as well.
In the end, the definitions and exceptions meant little to the visiting veterans, who simply wanted to tour the memorial.
Don Coleman, an 88-year-old Navy veteran who lived his whole civilian life in Missouri, said he was worried when he boarded a plane Wednesday morning that he might not get to see the memorial, even though he knew veterans the day before had been successful. He smiled as he slowly walked from the Pacific tower to the Atlantic side, where his home state’s name was etched.
“It’s just such an everlasting impression, a part of our lives that I hadn’t gotten to see yet,” he said. “I was worried this would all be mixed up. But everything just turned out wonderful.”
Jesse Cook, one of the oldest World War II veterans visiting the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C., on October 2, 2013, waves to tourists that weren't allowed inside. Cook was with the Heartland Honor Flight from Kansas City, Mo.
MEREDITH TIBBETTS/STARS AND STRIPES