- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Organizers of this weekend’s National World War II Memorial Dedication and Reunion Celebration on the Mall have one concern in the front of their minds — the thousands of aging veterans in the crowd who face serious health risks.

“For a lot of people, this is the culmination of their biography,” said Richard Kurin, director of the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which is producing the reunion on the Mall.

“They want to be here despite being ill,” he said. “Coming to this memorial is like coming to a pilgrimage.”

The median age of World War II veterans is 79, and the youngest is thought to be 76. Fewer than 4 million of the 16 million veterans who survived the war are alive.

“From the very beginning, age has been a concern,” said Sgt. Scott Fear, U.S. Park Police spokesman. “A lot of preparation went into this.”

About 200,000 people, including almost 100,000 veterans, are expected to attend the dedication festivities on Saturday on the Mall.

Medical authorities warn that with weather forecasters calling for temperatures in the 80s and humidity topping 67 percent, the elderly in the crowd could suffer heat exhaustion, dehydration and possibly cardiac episodes.

Some organizers also fear that afternoon thunderstorms could complicate the situation.

“If there’s a thunderstorm, we evacuate,” said Jim Deutsch, curator of the reunion, which will stretch from Third to Sixth streets on the Mall and includes tents where visitors can listen to World War II-era music and hear panel discussions among prisoners of war and the Tuskegee Airmen.

“People think it might be safe to be in a tent like this, but it’s not,” said Mr. Deutsch yesterday as he checked out progress in the tent where visitors can learn about the history of the memorial’s construction. “If there’s even a hint of a serious thunderstorm, we will make the [evacuation] call.”

Mr. Deutsch said visitors on the Mall could be evacuated to museums adjoining the Mall, but ultimately, a swarm of buses would have to hurry back from the Pentagon and RFK Stadium, where they will go after dropping off most of the 117,000 attendees with tickets.

More than 200 physicians, nurses and corpsmen with the Navy and U.S. Public Health Service have volunteered to man the first-aid tents for the dedication, most signing up for the unpaid job out of a sense of patriotism.

“This is going to be more medically challenging than the Fourth of July because of the age of participants,” said Dr. William D. Rogers, operational medical director for the National Park Service. “It’s going to be hard on them.”

Dr. Rogers, who works as an emergency-room physician when he’s not volunteering to run medical services at such events as the annual Fourth of July celebration, said he wasn’t surprised by the overwhelming number of volunteers and their patriotic motivation to take on the job.

“You just aren’t in the reserves anymore unless you are patriotic,” he said, adding that the volunteers are coming from as far away as California, Tennessee and Connecticut and paying for the trip themselves.

“A lot of them have parents who were in World War II and feel really, really strongly that this is something they need to do,” Dr. Rogers said. “They were adamant that they wear the white dress uniforms out of respect for the veterans.”

To accommodate the medical needs of the crowd, the volunteers for the Park Service will work with D.C. ambulance and paramedic crews assigned to the event and area hospitals that have added staff for an anticipated rush of patients.

“We are talking about people who are octogenarians and older,” said Alan Etter, spokesman for D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services. “With an older person, even if they just slip and fall, they can suffer severe injuries.”

The volunteers will include two physicians and four nurses at each of nine first-aid tents throughout the Mall. They will have a defibrillator and resuscitation equipment to revive patients in cardiac arrest.

They will have hundreds of wheelchairs and two paid wheelchair technicians, who will fix wheelchairs for disabled participants at the event, as well as the wheelchairs at the first-aid stations.

In addition to teams of medical corpsmen strolling through the crowds, about six D.C. paramedic bicycle teams will patrol the grounds to provide quick aid to the sick and injured.

“We are prepared for a mass-casualty situation,” Mr. Etter said.

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