Veterans exert right to visit closed World War II Memorial
October 10, 2013 4:30 PM
Mark Gail/Special to Block News Alliance
Army veteran Irving Steinberg of Honor flight Northwest Ohio shares a laugh with a visitor at the World War II Memorial.
Mark Gail/Special to Block News Alliance
Members of the Honor Flight Northwest Ohio visit the World War II Memorial on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
By Tracie Mauriello Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
WASHINGTON -- Tears filled John Lichko's eyes as he thought of the Army Air Corps comrades he served with in England and France. The memories flooded back as he posed for a picture under a pillar at the World War II Memorial that commemorates the contributions of Pennsylvania veterans.
"Being here really makes you miss your buddies. Some of the guys I served with for three years," said Mr. Lichko, 90, who grew up in Vandergrift and now lives in Flatrock, Mich., just south of Detroit.
The government shutdown that began 10 days ago nearly robbed him of the chance to remember them and to see the towering pillars of granite and the Freedom Wall's 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war.
A week ago, National Park Service employees, citing the shutdown, blocked access to the World War II Memorial. Members of Congress intervened and barriers that surrounded the monument were moved so groups of veterans participating in Honor Flight trips could enter the open-air memorial.
"That was terrible and I felt terrible to hear about it," said Mr. Lichko, who flew in from Toledo, Ohio, Wednesday with Honor Flight Northwest Ohio, a nonprofit group that provides transportation and escorts for veterans visiting war memorials.
But Mr. Lichko and the 69 other veterans he arrived with had no trouble.
Instead of being turned away, they were greeted by three park rangers who shook their hands and said, "Welcome to your memorial" and "Good morning, how you doing?"
Barriers held together with tie-wraps still surrounded most of the memorial and the centerpiece fountain remained off, giving the appearance that the area was still closed. But that didn't stop veterans and others from walking freely through a southern arch while some tourists hopped a 3-foot-high barrier even as park rangers watched.
"We were lucky to be able to get through," said Jack Mehle, an 86-year-old World War II veteran from Toledo.
World War II Navy medic Hubble Finch of Perrysburg, Ohio, passed easily into the memorial Wednesday, but the ease of access didn't quiet his anger that other veterans had been turned away last week.
"That was a disgrace. That was foolishness," he said. The government "spent more money closing the place down than it would cost to keep it open."
That's also a concern of the American Center for Law and Justice, a civil rights firm in Washington, D.C. that has been working to get the memorials fully open for everyone to visit.
The memorials normally are open 24 hours a day without round-the-clock staffing, so it's unreasonable to restrict access because of the shutdown, center director Jordan Sekulow said in a telephone interview. It cost more for the Park Service to erect barricades around the memorials and send over security guards, who wouldn't normally be there, to keep people out, he said.
Park Service officials could not immediately say how much the closure cost or how much it normally costs to operate the memorial.
Mr. Sekulow said he visited the memorial last Thursday. One ranger let him inside and another promptly escorted him back out, even though a veterans group was allowed in.
"We're very happy the Honor Flights are being granted an exemption, but what about everybody else?" he asked after being turned away.
Michael Litterst, spokesman for the Park Service, said Tuesday that others also would be "granted access to the park for First Amendment activities." Technically, though, the memorial -- along with 401 other Park Service sites across the country -- remains closed, he said.
Wednesday afternoon, as the Toledo Honor Flight group wound its way around the memorial, a pair of Park Service employees arrived at the perimeter to replace a "closed" sign with one that said: "This National Park Service area is closed except to 1st Amendment Activities."
Friendly rangers and one security guard stationed around the memorial said they now had more clarity on what procedures to use during a shutdown, when monuments and memorials are supposed to be closed.
One ranger, who asked not to be identified, said he couldn't think of many activities that wouldn't be covered under the First Amendment, so he's letting everyone inside.
Still, the barricades remained, making the memorial appear inaccessible.
Members of Congress, including Ohio Republican Bob Latta and Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur were on hand Wednesday.
"I'm here in case there's a problem," Mr. Latta said.
He knows how important these visits can be for veterans because his father-in-law, a World War II veteran who served in the Pacific, participated in an Honor Flight trip last year.
Ms. Kaptur, who was instrumental in creating the World War II Memorial, said it was disrespectful to keep veterans out and she's glad the Park Service clarified its policy.
She put the blame squarely on Republicans for putting partisan opposition to the federal Affordable Care Act ahead of the broader needs of the country.