By COLIN A. YOUNG Day Staff Writer
Washington - The plaza outside one of the entrances to the National World War II Memorial was speckled Thursday with yellow T-shirts and jackets worn by veterans from the Honor Flight of Southern New Mexico.
The veterans visited the memorial, which along with 400 other national parks, monuments and historic sites, has been closed since Tuesday, after Congress failed to reach an agreement to continue to fund government operations.
On Tuesday, amid the first government shutdown since 1995-96, groups of veterans who came from around the country to visit the memorial found themselves on the outside looking in. The memorial was closed, its entrances blocked with wrought iron barricades and police tape.
But with the help of members of Congress, veterans groups that had planned trips to the memorial have been permitted to visit, despite the barriers that block most tourists from getting in.
"I think it was a dog and pony show to lock the gates and make it so people can't see a memorial that is wide open," Christopher Coutu, a former Connecticut state representative and founder of the Norwich nonprofit American Warrior, said. "It's what usually happens, all the government agencies try to show, 'look here are the consequences,' and they overdramatize it. Here is an example where they went too far."
American Warrior has been organizing "Day of Honor" trips to Washington since 2006 so World War II veterans can visit the memorial, built in 2004 in their honor.
All 401 national parks, monuments and historic sites are closed and more than 20,000 parks employees have been furloughed because of the shutdown, according to a statement from National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson.
"Without staff or funding to ensure the safety of visitors, the security of the memorials, and the continued operation and maintenance of park facilities, the memorials on the National Mall - just like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon - are closed," Johnson said in the statement.
Carol McCarthy of Pawcatuck left for the capital on Thursday to bring her father Joseph to a reunion of veterans who served aboard the battleship USS Indiana during World War II. McCarthy is a former Day employee.
While the most important part of the reunion - the reading of the names of recently deceased shipmates - will take place at a memorial unaffected by the shutdown, she said, the closures have cast some doubt on the rest of the trip.
"We're supposed to go to the World War II memorial Friday morning, veterans and their families, but I don't know if that is still happening," she said. "We'll just have to take it as it comes. They're greatest generation people. They're used to rolling with the punches."
Carol Bottoms of Richmond, Va., came to the memorial on a planned trip with her husband, a World War II veteran. They were unable to enter the memorial and had to settle for taking pictures from outside the barriers.
"This is disgusting," Bottoms said. "Our funds paid to put these barricades up. We should be able to take them down."
Though technically the memorial is closed, groups of veterans with the Honor Flight Network, like the group from New Mexico, are being allowed to tour the site.
"The Honor Flights are being granted access to the WWII memorial to conduct First Amendment activities in accordance with National Park Service regulations applicable to the National Mall and Memorial Parks," Johnson said.
That is welcome news to the 3,560 World War II veterans scheduled to pay their respects at the memorial this month, according to Jim McLaughlin, chairman of the board for the Honor Flight Network.
"They tell us (the memorial visit) is one of greatest days of their lives. It is absolutely life-changing for many of them to have the opportunity to see the memorial there and to recognize their comrades who didn't come home," McLaughlin said. "It gives them a great deal of peace of mind and it gives them closure."
Coutu said that, had one of his groups been denied entrance to the memorial, he would have moved the barricades himself, even at the risk of arrest.
"It is a tribute to that generation that nothing will stop them, even at 90-plus years old," he said. "They've seen a lot worse days. Throughout their lives, they have had to overcome extreme obstacles, and in the end, they have always represented what America is all about - that continuous fight to keep moving forward."
Coutu founded American Warrior in 2006 when he visited the World War II memorial and realized there were no veterans there. Since then, the group has led nine trips to Washington and will make its 10th trip in April.
"We will have brought 1,000 Connecticut World War II veterans to the memorial," he said. "And it all just started out with a dream that we could send one."
Boston University intern Kelsey Hopper contributed to this report from Washington.