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Storming the gates: WWII vets visit war monument despite government shutdown

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Military veterans visit the World War II Memorial as some of them are interviewed by news media during a government shutdown October 1, 2013 in Washington, DC.

 

Seventy years ago they fought fascists. Now they're fighting partisan gridlock.

A group of about 140 World War II veterans spent a day at their monument on the National Mall on Tuesday — despite the site being closed amid a government shutdown — after they were joined by a group of Republican lawmakers, some of whom claimed to have pushed aside the barriers.

After the barriers were taken away, the site remained “technically closed” on Tuesday, even as the public walked freely around the open-air monument.

National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said that she did not have the authority to re-close the monument, and said that about 330 park rangers in the nation’s capital had been furloughed because of the funding cut.

EPA/Shawn Thew

Zach Twedt (L) pushes Korean war veteran Robert Olson (R) on an Honor Flight tour of the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC, USA, 01 October 2013. barricades to visit the memorial.

It was unclear exactly who had moved the barriers. Rep. Steve King of Iowa tweeted that veterans were “locked out” of the memorial, and “we opened it.”

Other reports indicated that the veterans moved the barriers or that multiple pairs of hands played a part.

“They were disappointed they couldn’t go on to the grounds, but they also understood why the grounds were closed,” said Patrick McCourt, an Honor Flight volunteer. “I don’t think that the veterans would have opened the gates. They have more respect for the circumstances than normal tourists.”

Tuesday’s Honor Flights included 91 veterans from Mississippi and about 50 more from Iowa, McCourt said.

During a pilgrimage to the World War II memorial, men in their 80s and 90s arrived on the National Mall to discover they were locked out, due to the government shutdown. But, in a rare bipartisan agreement among the elected officials present, the gates to the memorial were opened and the men stepped inside. NBC's Harry Smith reports.

Representative Michele Bachman said she ran over “as quick as I could” after hearing that the veterans were not going to be allowed on to the grounds of the memorial.

“There were all these veterans standing here behind police tape, and they’re prevented from going in to see the memorial,” Bachmann said. “So about maybe eight to 12 of us members, one member had scissors and cut the tape and then we just escorted the veterans in, and there was a bagpiper along, and he led the way.”

Mississippi Representative Steven Palazzo, a Republican, sent a letter to President Obama dated Sept. 30 that asked him to keep the World War II memorial open.

“It would truly be devastating to our veterans that travel great lengths to share this experience with family and friends and see a piece of their own history,” Palazzo wrote in the letter. “Additionally, it would require extra effort, expense, and personnel to put up these barricades and enforce these regulations on open-air monuments than it would to allow Honor Flight veterans to visit their memorial.”

About 3,000 permitted events are held on the National Mall every year, according to Johnson.

NBC News’ Wendy Jones and NBC Washington’s Tom Sherwood contributed to this report.

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