Support for WWII vets on Honor Flights makes Park Service surrender
October 8, 2013, By Maggie Thurber | for Ohio Watchdog, World War II veterans from Ohio are the next wave of war-worn warriors vowing to defy orders and storm barricades at a memorial built in their honor in Washington, D.C.
World War II Army veteran Jack Poitras of Barnhart, Mo., plays Taps Wednesday as a group of Missouri veterans visit the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. This week, a group of Ohio veterans will make the trip.
An outpouring of support from across the country — and the willingness of guests and volunteers to risk arrest — helped Honor Flight of Northwest Ohio proceed with its scheduled trip Wednesday to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
“We’d been watching the issue for several weeks,” said Lee Armstrong, the group’s president. “We planned the flight back in May, but knowing they were talking about a government shutdown on Oct. 1, we kept watching and told our volunteers to be ready.”
Honor Flight is a national nonprofit that gives veterans free transportation so they can see war memorials. More than 3,500 veterans from across the country are scheduled to visit the memorials this month.
Watching and waiting gave them time to see what happened when Honor Flight groups from Mississippi and Iowa refused to let barricades at the monument stop them from visiting and paying tribute Tuesday.
On Wednesday, more veterans moved the barricades to gain access and the National Park Service issued an announcement that, despite the government shutdown, the memorial would remain open to veterans under the First Amendment.
Armstrong was told Tuesday by a woman at the National Park Service who refused to give her name that if his Honor Flight group crossed the barricades that had been set up, they were going to be arrested.
When he questioned if they were really going to arrest a bunch of 90-year-old veterans, she told him to “have a good day,” and then hung up, he said.
“We have several individuals on this flight who are prominent members of the community. We didn’t want to risk having them arrested,” he said.
So they announced the potential cancellation of the trip on their webpage, but not before sending emails to local congressional representatives, the Speaker of the House, the President of the Senate and the White House objecting to the threat of arrest.
And that’s when the media frenzy started, Armstrong said.
“No one replied,” Armstrong said, “but several of the offices gave our name out to the press and it’s been nonstop since then.”
As news of their threatened arrest spread, the emails started pouring in. “I haven’t even read half of them yet, there’s so many,” he said.
Supporters voted to storm “the gates if it comes to that,” while another said he would serve as a “human shield” to stand between the veterans and authorities.
Last week, the Republican National Committee offered to cover the cost of hiring furloughed security officers for the next 30 days to ensure the Memorial stayed open to the public – and they called on the Democratic National Committee to join them.
Between the emails and the news reports, by Wednesday evening Armstrong was leaning toward making the trip, but he needed to check with everyone first.
Then Friday morning, The Weekly Standard reported the barricades around the WWII Memorial had been reinforced with wire. They also reported that vets and others had been removed from the area around the Vietnam Memorial.
“We have 15 Korean vets as guests along with 57 WWII vets. We have some Vietnam vets who are guardians to help family members who are guests on the flight,” Armstrong said, noting that several of the guests are terminally ill and this may be their last opportunity to see the Memorials.
U.S. Rep. Bob Latta, R-Bowling Green, said the group should come, but U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Toledo, recommended they stay home because of the lack of restroom facilities and interpretive staff.
“The fountain’s not working, there’s no interpretation, it’s just not the same,” she told the Toledo Blade.
Fountains or not, the vets and guardians were asked their preference and they said, “Let’s go!”
“This will not be the first time we went to Washington, D.C., when the memorials were not shiny and perfect,” Armstrong said. “We’ve had two seasons where the reflecting pool was closed and torn up, and several flights where the WWII Memorial was partially closed due to water main repairs. This did not deter the determination of the veterans to enjoy the meaning of what they represent to them.”