The National World War II Memorial has emerged as an unlikely icon in the dispute over the federal government shutdown, with some 200 veterans Wednesday again bypassing barriers around the “officially” closed memorial and drawing protesters, curious onlookers and members of Congress to air their frustrations with the ongoing political dispute.
The memorial on the Mall, visited almost daily by members of a rapidly diminishing population of elderly World War II veterans from around the country, has forced the National Park Service into a delicate position between accommodating the visitors who might never get another chance to see the memorial and enforcing its closure.
“All I can say is that the memorial is legally closed and we’re asking for cooperation,” Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said. “The National Park Service respects veterans. This memorial was built for them. None of us want to prevent them from seeing the memorial.”
House Republicans have attempted to pass individual spending bills, including one that would keep the national parks open, but Democrats have stood firm against the “piecemeal” funding approach.
Both parties referenced the memorial in their rhetoric Wednesday.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said the GOP would foot the bill to keep the memorial open for the next 30 days to curtail the Obama administration taking the “unnecessary step of keeping the Greatest Generation away from a monument built in their honor.”
Democratic National Committee spokesman Mo Elleithee told The Associated Press in response that “we’ve already been working on a plan to open the memorial — and the entire government — after the GOP caused them to close.”
For a second day Wednesday, the Park Service did not stop the escorted groups of veterans from seeing the memorial, despite the metal bike racks, yellow caution tape and “closed” signs that rimmed the site.
The veterans who visited the memorial were part of three “honor flights” from Kansas, Missouri and Illinois. The honor flight program transports veterans from around the country to the District and escorts them to the war memorials in the city.
In a Park Service statement, officials said “the Honor Flights are being granted access to the WWII memorial to conduct First Amendment activities.”
The veterans’ visit prompted a letter from Rep. Bill Huizenga, Michigan Republican, to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, in which he called the barricades “absolutely ridiculous.”
Mr. Huizenga attended Wednesday’s memorial tour to escort three constituents who were part of an honor flight.
“To me, this shouldn’t be about anything other than these men and women and their families visiting this memorial,” Mr. Huizenga said.
But the spectacle drew several dozen people who stood at the southern entrance to the memorial and called for better wages. The demonstrators were shouted down by onlookers demanding respect for the veterans.
John Aucott, however, was not harassed as he quietly held a sign that stated “Our vets did their job. Congress please do yours!”