Members of the Honor Flight of Northwest tour the World War II Memorial on Wednesday in Washington. Park service rangers said they are allowing anyone to enter the park for First Amendment activities.
SPECIAL TO BLADE/MARK GAIL
WASHINGTON — David Glasmire was prepared for the last battle of World War II when he arrived in the capital on Wednesday.
The Army veteran said he wasn’t going to let a government shutdown keep him from seeing the World War II Memorial.
PHOTO GALLERY: Honor Flight
“I probably would’ve got arrested. We would have just walked right in anyway,” said Mr. Glasmire, 89, of Lakeside, Ohio, who traveled to the capital with Honor Flight Northwest Ohio, a nonprofit group that brings veterans to see war memorials.
A week ago, National Park Service employees blocked access to the World War II Memorial for similar Honor Flight groups from other states. Members of Congress intervened and someone — it still isn’t clear who — moved barriers that surrounded the memorial so Honor Flight participants could enter the open-air memorial.
But the veterans who traveled from Toledo on Wednesday had no trouble. Instead 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 veterans and others walked 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 who had heard about the obstacles other Honor Flight groups encountered last week.
World War II Navy Medic Hubble Finch of Perrysburg had been fearless too. The first time he tried to enlist he was turned away because he was still a few months shy of his 18th birthday.
Seventy years later, he has shrapnel scars from a mortar shell that killed the lieutenant sitting next to him in a foxhole during the Battle of Okinawa.
Mr. Finch easily rolled into the memorial using a wheelchair on Wednesday, but the ease of access didn’t quiet his anger that other veterans who’d made similar sacrifices had been turned away last week.
“That was a disgrace. That was foolishness,” he said. The government “spent more money closing the place down that it would cost to keep it open.”
That’s also a concern of the American Center for Law & Justice, a civil-rights firm in Washington 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.
Officials from the National Park Service could not immediately say how much the closure cost or how much it normally costs to operate the World War II Memorial.
Mr. Sekulow said he visited the memorial Thursday, before the Park Service clarified its policy. 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.
In a statement Tuesday, Parks Spokesman Michael Litterst said 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.”
One ranger, who asked not to be identified by name, said he couldn’t think of many activities that wouldn’t be covered under the First Amendment, which provides for free expression, so he’s letting everyone inside.
Still, the barricades remained, making the memorial look inaccessible. Tourists approached warily, expecting to be turned away by rangers and park police who flanked the memorial's southern arch, where barriers had been pushed aside.
Members of Congress including Ohio Republican Bob Latta and Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur were on hand Wednesday too.
“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.
Miss 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 opposition to the Affordable Care Act ahead of the broader needs of the country.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tracie Mauriello is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.