A government shutdown nearly prevented World War II veterans from visiting the Washington memorial built in their honor, but Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., and several of his colleagues removed the barricades. Their actions allowed the veterans to experience the memorial and instantly made the site a focal point of the shutdown debate.
Palazzo became a leading figure in this debate because an Honor Flight from his home state happened to be planning a visit to the World War II Memorial the morning of Oct. 1. Palazzo told WND he and the rest of the Mississippi delegation routinely meet Honor Flight passengers from their state when they come to Washington. He said it was clear ahead of Tuesday's scheduled visit that there could be a problem if a government funding compromise could not be reached.
"The concern was will the memorial be open, and we couldn't answer that," he said. "So we reached out to the Park Service and Interior. They said, 'If there's a shutdown, they will be barricaded and there will be no admittance. So, of course, the government went into a shutdown. We contacted the Park Service again and said, 'Can you not make an exception for members of the Greatest Generation, our World War II heroes?' They said, government is shut down, barricades will be up, no admittance."
"We then wrote a letter to the president, asking him to make an exception for these World War II men and women, many who have waited 50-60 years to see this memorial that was erected in their honor for their courage, for their sacrifices, their commitment and their patriotism to this country. The White House liaison was not cooperative and pretty much stuck to the guns, 'Hey, what do you expect in a government shutdown?'" he said.
When he learned the Honor Flight had landed and the veterans would not be granted access to the memorial, Palazzo rallied the rest of the Mississippi delegation and recruited other House members to head down the National Mall to meet the vets and thank them for their service to the nation. After arriving, however, it was clear that wouldn't be enough.
"It was a heartbreaking feeling when these veterans were lined up and what they saw was a steel barricade with a yellow ribbon that said, 'Police Line Do Not Cross.' We huddled together, and we just decided to take the matters into our own hands. We physically pushed the barricades back and we allowed the veterans to march in and enjoy their memorial," Palazzo said.
The congressman said, regardless of the shutdown, open-air memorials that usually remain open to the public at all hours should not be blocked off since no government personnel are needed for people to experience them. Palazzo eventually concluded this challenge was purely political.
"At first, I thought this was a bureaucratic oversight," he said. "Someone's not reading the shutdown memo correctly. The more that we worked with these federal agencies, the more we felt like there was definitely petty politics involved in their decision to barricade our veterans from entering their memorial."
On Wednesday, the same scenario played out with Palazzo playing a supporting role as an Honor Flight from a different state came to see the memorial and even more barricades were in place. This time he watched as lawmakers from the same state as the second group of veterans moved the barriers.
The congressman said the National Park Service will now allow all World War II veterans to see the memorial. The rest of the public will not be given permission to enter. Palazzo said that's a step in the right direction but not good enough.
"What about our Vietnam veterans? What about our Korean veterans? Are they going to barricade them out as well?" asked Palazzo, noting that the monuments were never blocked off during the 1995 government shutdown.
Some critics of the GOP suggest members like Palazzo only leaped into action to score political points, but he strongly rejects that allegation.
"This is all about the veterans," he said. "It's not about us. It's not about the president. It's showing our appreciation for them. We tried to bring as little attention to what we were there for, but typically we're there anyway – when there's no cameras, there's no lights – thanking our veterans for their sacrifice, their courage and their service."