Visiting veterans storm closed war memorials

The elderly veterans piled off the chartered buses in front of the World War II Memorial, some in wheelchairs, some using canes, all determined to pay homage to each other and their fallen comrades from more than half a century ago.

Metal barricades and signs announcing a closure due to the shutdown of the federal government awaited them.

The graying and stooped men, wearing blue baseball caps, red T-shirts and garlands of red, white and blue flowers, surged forward, accompanied by members of Congress — the same lawmakers who, hours earlier, had triggered a government shutdown by failing to pass a budget resolution.

A shout went up. The barricades had been moved — it was unclear by whom.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he believed the Park Service opened the gates. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said the congressmen did it. Rep. Steven M. Palazzo (R-Miss.) said the barricades just seemed to part.

“I’m not going to enforce the ‘no stopping or standing’ sign for a group of 90 World War II veterans,” said a U.S. Park Police officer, who declined to give his name. “I’m a veteran myself.”

The veterans, from Mississippi, were visiting the memorial on the Mall as part of an honor flight program. They had chartered an $80,000 airplane, and their plans were too far advanced to postpone when the government shut down, said Wayne Lennep, spokesman for the Mississippi Gulf Coast honor flights.

The group arrived at Reagan National Airport at 10 a.m. on a flight from Gulfport, Miss. By 11 a.m., the veterans were on the Mall, where the many memorials and monuments were supposed to be closed.

“It’s the best civil disobedience we’ve seen in Washington for a long time,” Huizenga told the group.

And they were not the only old soldiers determined to claim their small piece of the nation’s capital, even on a day when the federal government seemed to have let them — and the rest of the country — down.

At the Korean War Memorial, a group of veterans from Puerto Rico also moved barricades aside in order to lay a wreath. The veterans represented members of the 65th Army regiment, which fought in Korea.

Anthony Mele, president of the regiment’s honor task force, said a Park Police officer admonished the group that the site was closed and then “literally turned his face and walked away” as the men moved the barriers in order to enter.

“We went on the other side of the barriers like good soldiers should, and we laid our wreath there,” Mele said with a smile. “We were told that all permits were rescinded. I thought they said all permits were canceled except ours.”

Thomas Lopez, 84, said he was honored to be able to visit the memorial and remember fellow members of the 65th regiment.

“This is a shame to me,” he said of the bypassed barricades. “We’re part of this country, and we fought for this country, and it doesn’t seem necessary.”