Free Speech Issue?

Memorial Visit a ‘First Amendment Demonstration’

Veterans who visited the WWII memorial on Day 2 of the shutdown were technically part of a demonstration and met by hordes of congressmen, explains Ben Jacobs.

Scores of veterans of the Second World War and Korean War, along with volunteers escorting them, streamed into Washington DC’s World War II Memorial on the National Mall on an unseasonably warm October Wednesday surrounded by well wishers, protestors and hordes of Congressmen. The veterans came for the second day since the shutdown as part of the Honor Flight program, which allows those who served to visit the memorials in Washington DC for free.

According to the National Park Service, the groups of veterans who visited the memorial as part of the Honor Flight program were participating in a demonstration and were free to visit the memorial in a way that regular visitors were not able to during the government shutdown.

The entire scene was rather bizarre, as the first group of veterans from the Kansas City area entered the memorial. Ninety veterans in blue shirts, about 25 of whom were in wheelchairs, went down the walkway into the memorial escorted by “guardians” wearing identical shirts, only in olive green. The shirts proclaimed their affiliation with Honor Flight and had the motto “If you can read this, thank a teacher. If you can read it in English, thank a veteran.” Congressmen swarmed around the area wanting to thank veterans. Some were there because their constituents were part of the Honor Flight——either in the initial group from Kansas City or a group from the Chicago area, which arrived at around noon—-others were just there for the spectacle.

According to John Doole who helped organize the veteran’s visit, there wasn’t any suspense as to whether they would be able to enter the memorial on Wednesday. It had all been worked out in advance. He just said that they had been told not to touch the barricades blocking the entrance; they should leave that to the congressmen who had showed up. And, even if things hadn’t worked out, they had already arranged a backup plan, a guided tour of the U.S. Capitol by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS). In fact, Doole said that the veterans only faced one real problem in visiting the memorial. All the bathrooms on the mall were locked and while congressmen were willing to lift barricades, opening up public bathrooms was an entirely different step. Considering that the youngest veterans were in their 80s and many had significant health issues, bathroom access was very important.

The politicians there insisted though that their presence had nothing to do with politics. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), one of the leaders of the Tea Party effort to defund Obamacare, said the attention that his party was focusing on the memorial was simply about the veterans. “No no, this isn’t about polling,” said Gohmert as his voice choked up. “It’s just about doing what’s right. These guys come for the only time in their lives. It’s about doing what’s right for them and hopefully the polling will catch up with what’s right.”