Veterans invade their own memorials

The U.S. government shutdown could not stop veterans from passing through barricades to visit their war memorials in Washington Tuesday. The veterans, many of whom fought their way to victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan during World War II, came from Mississippi and Iowa and were not going to be denied access to federal landmarks built in their honor.

Traveling with the group from Iowa was past American Legion Auxiliary Department of Iowa president Ann Rehbein – wife of Past National Commander Dave Rehbein – and their daughter, Jennifer, a Navy veteran. They went with 150 veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War through the Story County (Iowa) Freedom Flight program, which gives those who served during wartime an opportunity to visit national memorials and monuments that recognize their sacrifices.

When the Iowa group arrived and found the World War II Memorial barricaded due to the government shutdown which closed National Park Service sites around the country, one of the Story County volunteers "removed the barricade and said, ‘We’re going in,’" Ann Rehbein said. "They (park police) just stood to the side, folded their arms and let us go."

The veterans and volunteers were not worried about their uncharacteristic act of civil disobedience. "The adverse publicity (if the police had stopped them) would have been so bad that I didn’t feel apprehensive at all," she said.

By late afternoon, the veterans were moving on to the Korean War and Vietnam War Memorials. An Air Force veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom who had been furloughed from his Department of Defense civilian job for the day was impressed by the older veterans who weren’t going to let the government shutdown stand in their way. "World War II vets shouldn’t have to break into their own memorial," said Rob Joswiak, who had ridden a bicycle to the memorial to support the older veterans on the National Mall. "This is one of my favorite places," he said. "I run down here a lot, and it’s always inspiring."

Joswiak, who works at nearby Fort Meade in Maryland, says the government shutdown has been "the only thing anyone’s been taking about. I’m single and budget pretty well, so I’m in good shape for awhile, but many of my colleagues face a lot of uncertainty – especially if this goes on too long."

By the time Joswiak arrived at the scene, all was quiet at the World War II Memorial. A few middle-aged tourists were seeking shady refuge from the 90-degree heat and high humidity. Some elderly Japanese veterans and their companions could be seen viewing the memorial from an adjacent park. A lone police officer patrolled the memorial grounds.

The place had been much livelier earlier in the day when veterans crossed the barricades to see their memorials. Some of the veterans had been escorted by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Reps. Bill Huizenga of Michigan, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Steve King of Iowa and Steven Palazzo of Mississippi. The lawmakers had met the vets upon their arrival at Reagan National Airport earlier in the day and led them to the National Mall.

Park officers on the scene offered no resistance to what one congressman called "a peaceful act of civil disobedience."

Four more Honor Flights are expected to arrive in D.C. today.