by Brandon Brown, Cronkite News Service
WASHINGTON – A government shutdown could not keep 77 southern Arizona veterans from seeing “their” World War II Memorial Monday.
“I was afraid we’d be sitting outside looking in,” said Bob Hamilton, a World War II veteran from Green Valley who, like many of the veterans on the Honor Flight trip, was nervous the monument would be closed once they got there.
The memorial, like all monuments, was closed to the public last week when the federal government shut down because of a congressional budget impasse.
President Obama met with Congressional leaders on Thursday in hopes of ending the shutdown. Moreover, the National Park Service signaled a willingness to let the states take over operation of some national parks, including the Grand Canyon.
Those signs of progress came after the National Park Service initially attempted to turn away veterans from a war memorial. That effort prompted members of Congress to push back the barriers as the media looked on.
But it was a different story Monday, as park rangers showed up at the memorial before the veterans to remove the barriers and let them in.
“The park service could not be more accommodating and helpful for us,” said Emerson Knowles, board president for Honor Flight Southern Arizona, which brought the veterans to D.C.
Just in case the park rangers did not come through, Arizona Reps. Ron Barber (D-Tucson), Trent Franks (R-Glendale) and Matt Salmon (R-Mesa) turned out to greet the veterans Monday.
“I was going to be here just in case we had to storm the barriers together,” Barber said. “Anything we could do to disrupt their trip would be wrong.”
While all three lawmakers agreed that closing monuments during the shutdown is bad, they disagreed — as a sharply divided House has disagreed — on what to do about it.
“The truth is that I know there’s a lot of grandstanding that surrounds events like this,” Franks said. “But the bottom line is that this government spent more money closing this memorial than they have just keeping it open.”
Salmon said the House was trying to do its part when it passed a bill last week to keep national parks open during the shutdown.
But Barber said it is time for Congress to get the whole government up and running, not just the National Park Service or other individual agencies.
Knowles said it is “just unfortunate Honor Flight got caught in the middle of this” shutdown debate, but that the group was determined to press on.
Honor Flight is a national organization that works to bring World War II veterans to Washington to see the memorial, which opened in 2004. Monday’s trip was the fourth this year for Honor Flight Southern Arizona and, with 77 veterans, it was the organization’s largest group to date.
Knowles said the shutdown caused the group to switch from its normal itinerary — they did not expect to tour the Lincoln Memorial or the Capitol, for example — but organizers are still making this a special trip for the veterans.
Vic Ponzo, a veteran from Tucson, said he was pretty angry when he saw the memorial was shut down last week, but said Monday that the trip had been a special event.
“It’s good to feel that somebody thought enough of us to put something like this up,” Ponzo said of the memorial.
Barber agreed with many of the veterans that the experience was uplifting.
“I can say without question it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time — to be with these guys,” he said.
Another Honor Flight group from Arizona will be coming to Washington next week. Susan Howe, spokeswoman for the Honor Flight Arizona group from Prescott, said she never thought about canceling or delaying the trip, despite the government shutdown.
“We won’t deny them (World War II veterans) this opportunity,” Howe said.