Local veterans lament canceling trip to visit war memorials in Washington

| Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Jerry Fisher shot his wife a look when the nightly news flashed images of aging veterans breaching barricades closing off the National World War II Memorial.

“You better drop it, buddy,” she fired back.

But the report on Tuesday about World War II veterans refusing to allow the federal government shutdown to keep them from visiting the Washington memorial honoring their sacrifice landed like a gut punch.

“We should have been there,” said Fisher, 70, of Brighton in Beaver County, a Vietnam-era veteran who with his wife organizes free bus trips for Western Pennsylvania veterans to the memorial.

Since 2006, more than 1,600 veterans have traveled to Washington as part of what's unofficially called the “WWII Memorial Vets Bus Trip,” Fisher said. The memorial opened in 2004.

Forty more were slated to go on Tuesday until the trip was postponed because of the shutdown. Fisher said he regretted canceling it, but even more so when he saw the news footage.

It told the story of a group of 92 veterans from Mississippi who flew to Washington to visit memorials for World War II and other wars as well as Arlington National Cemetery. Instead of being deterred by National Park Service barricades blocking their access, they marched through them with the help of several Republican lawmakers.

Veterans groups from Illinois, Michigan and Missouri did the same on Wednesday with help from lawmakers of both parties.

The National Park Service reversed the closure of the World War II Memorial and will allow veterans to visit as a free-speech right.

“We would have been there on the front line,” Fisher said. “I wouldn't have waited for the congressmen. I would have moved those barricades myself.”

Several area World War II veterans, though slowed by age, said they would have done the same.

“If I had enough strength, I would have moved them,” said Clarence “Code” Gomberg, 91, of Stanton Heights. “I think they should have more damn respect for veterans.”

Gomberg visited the memorial last year. Joseph Folino has been there twice. Both fought in the Battle of the Bulge.

“I'd have raised hell like everybody else,” said Folino, 92, of Jeannette. “It's a slap in the face to those who gave their lives and those who sacrificed. I made it back, but a lot of my buddies didn't. Is this the thanks they deserve?”

The federal government on Tuesday furloughed 800,000 employees as a cost-saving measure until Congress passes a spending bill. National parks and federal facilities are closed around the country.

Though not a goal of the political wrangling, the closing of the World War II Memorial was an unintended consequence, said Michael Kraus, curator of the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

“We're seeing the waning days of the World War II veterans. That's the sad part,” Kraus said. “Now they've become the iconic symbol of (shutdown) nonsense.”

Of the 16 million who served during World War II, about 1.2 million are still alive, according to the Veterans' Administration. An average of more than 600 die each day.

One veteran who was to have gone on this week's trip died on Monday, Fisher said. He said he wants to schedule a trip for next week.

James Jeffries reserved a seat on the trip that was canceled. Though he has gone twice before, he said he looks forward to seeing the memorial again.

“It's good to get back and see all those GIs,” said Jeffries, 86, of New Brighton, who served in the Pacific. “When they go again, if there's room for me, I'll go.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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