--WASHINGTON Many of the 91 veterans—median age 88-- who defied a government shutdown to gain entry to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, traveled home to Mississippi feeling an extra sense of pride.
“Last night when they were getting off the plane I probably heard 91 times it was the greatest day of their lives,” said Kim Foster, president of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight non-profit, which transports WWII veterans free of charge to D.C. “It normally is a trip of a lifetime, but I think this one was just even more meaningful because they didn’t think they were going to see the memorial.”
Veterans and organizers boarded their non-refundable charter flight Tuesday morning well aware that if Congress failed to pass a measure to fund the government that day, the WWII memorial and other memorials and monuments controlled by the National Park Service that they planned to visit would be closed to the public.
Foster said the prospect of missing the memorial was devastating for the aging veterans, who had applied and been selected for the trip months in advance.
“They were very upset. They felt that it was just wrong,” Foster said, later adding, “it was heartbreaking for a lot of the veterans.”
Foster said she and other organizers were “sick to our stomachs all day on Monday” as they attempted to create backup plans for a trip that would normally include a ceremony with a bagpiper and a procession at the WWII memorial, the playing of taps, lunch at the memorial, visits to the Korean, Vietnam and Lincoln memorials and a trip to Arlington National Cemetery.
Instead, they thought they might be forced to walk the veterans, most of whom are in wheelchairs, simply around the perimeter of the memorial—the purpose of the trip itself.
Opened to the public in 2004 as the first national memorial dedicated to those who served in WWII, the site was barricaded when they arrived on Tuesday and organizers began lining veterans along the fence erected to block the public.
But park police, aided by members of Congress accompanying the tour group, pulled aside the barricades for the veterans group, and the move quickly made national headlines.
Contrary to many of those reports, Foster said, no one “stormed the barricades.”
“It was very orderly,” she said.
“We were so thankful that they let the veterans in. It’s the right thing to do.”
Veterans on Tuesday’s tour missed out on some of the ceremonial plans at the memorial, and did not visit the Lincoln monument, but their trip was still filled with many of the charter’s planned events, including the delivery of around 60 letters personally addressed to each veteran from students.
Tuesday was the seventh charter trip conducted by the Mississippi group and cost $90,000 total.
The national Honor Flight Network organization didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but with charters scheduled for their network of organizations across the country, many are facing the same dilemma as the Mississippi group.
Tuesday’s incident has sparked outrage on the Hill, where several politicians and political groups have called for the WWII memorial to remain open amid the shutdown.
Republican Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi on Monday sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting that the WWII memorial remain open, noting the pre-scheduled Honor Flight tours. And the National Republican Congressional Committee launched a petition Tuesday to do the same, proclaiming, “Democrats shut down WWII memorial.”
Meanwhile, the Mississippi Honor Flight group is worrying about their planned and paid for Nov. 5 trip.
The charter is non-refundable, but additionally—as the national Honor Flight Network outlines in its mission statement and as Foster pointed out— time is of the essence for these aging veterans.
Since the Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight group began arranging flights in 2011, 40 of the veterans who traveled with the group have died.
“It would be terrible if they don’t open back up,” Foster said of the memorial.