October 18, 2013

M.D. Harmon: Closing veterans’ memorials reflects badly on Obama

It was a slap in the face to our veterans.

Americans have plenty of reasons to be proud of their veterans, and most of us are.

It’s become common, at least in my experience, to find people saying “Thank you for your service” when they encounter an active-duty service member in uniform or discover that someone they’re talking to is a vet.

And in recent days we have had new occasions to be proud of our veterans, including (but not limited to) the ones from World War II who have been brought to Washington, D.C., via the Honor Flight program to visit the WWII memorial on the National Mall.

The memorial, built in 2004 between the Washington Monument and the Reflecting Pool, is a large, open plaza with surrounding colonnades honoring the states and exhibits about the war.

It is near two older memorials, closer to the Lincoln Memorial, to the veterans of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts – both of which are also out in the open and surrounded by pedestrian-friendly walkways and grassy areas.

You’d think such places would be nearly impossible to close off, barring some public emergency or other condition of serious hazard.

Nevertheless, as everyone knows by now, that’s exactly what the National Park Service was ordered to do during the recently concluded “federal shutdown” (which, according to news reports, apparently affected only about 15 to 20 percent of government activities).

What happened after fence-like barricades (soon to become “Barrycades” on the Internet) were erected, hastily wired together and surrounded by yellow security tape at all these memorials has been an inspiration to countless Americans.

But first, a word about Honor Flights. Americans are losing World War II vets at nearly 800 a day, as the youngest are in their early 80s.

In 2005, an Air Force veteran from Ohio named Earl Morse, who was a physician assistant, found that the elderly veterans he was caring for had given up hope of ever visiting the new memorial erected in their honor.

So he gathered allies and support to fly a few of them there at no cost to them. That first Honor Flight, in May 2005, took 12 veterans in six light planes to Washington. But the program grew and grew, and by the end of 2012, with commercial airlines donating thousands of tickets, 98,500 vets had been transported and the program is operating in 41 states.

Now, imagine what happened when a group of those vets got to D.C. and found its way blocked by fences and tape. The vets, led by some sympathetic conservative congressmen, poured in around the fences.

As one vet said, “Normandy was closed when we got there, too.”

And this past weekend, the effort was repeated and expanded as thousands of veterans, spurred by reports of fellow vets and tourists blocked from the other memorials and from the Lincoln Memorial across the street, flowed into Washington and to their monuments in an irresistible tide.

Not only had the unjustifiable blockade of the memorials irked the vets and their supporters, but the supposedly “closed” National Mall (if you can imagine anyone pretending they could deny access to such a vast public area) was opened with official permission to a “March for Immigrant Dignity and Respect” backed by unions, progressive groups and left-wing members of Congress.

The rally should have been allowed, of course – but the permission granted to it made the administration’s double standard plain to all.

Photos of the weekend rally, widely available on the Internet if not in the major media, depicted piles of barricades and yellow tape stacked by the memorials, with one photo showing a legless vet traveling down a sidewalk on a scooter with a barricade balanced on its side.

He, and a number of other vets, took the barricades down the Mall to the White House, where they stacked them outside the fence for the president to see.

On Tuesday, another rally of vets and veterans’ groups, organized by the Military Coalition, a collection of 33 organizations whose membership totals more than 5 million veterans, protested the shutdown’s effects on their members.

Those effects included the denial of death benefits to the families of soldiers killed in combat, money that Republicans in Congress said was authorized to be paid by prior legislation. Some of the benefits were made up by a private group, the Fisher House Foundation.

The fences have now been taken down and access restored, which is a good thing.

But one can’t help thinking that a president who honored veterans would have been out at the memorials himself, ordering the removal of the barricades and the payment of benefits, once he found out what had happened.

Unless, of course, he approved of those events. But what would that say about him?

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at:

mdharmoncol@yahoo.com

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