Western Pa. veterans roll to D.C. to visit war memorials
WASHINGTON — They came ready for a fight, just as they did in World War II and Korea.
But the enemy was gone.
A busload of Western Pennsylvania veterans of the two wars, most in their 80s, thought they might have to storm barricaded national memorials they longed to visit just as others did during the two-week partial shutdown of the federal government.
When they arrived hours after the shutdown ended, barricades had vanished, and the approximately 40 veterans who traveled to the nation's capital early Thursday had unrestricted access to the sites. Otherwise, turnout at National Mall sites was light.
“It lets people focus on what's really important when they come here, not all the chicanery” in Congress, said Jack Daman, 87, of the North Side, a Navy veteran who served during World War II.
The National Park Service barricaded most of its sites, including war memorials, when the shutdown began Oct. 1. Park rangers furloughed during that time said they were obligated to do so but said the Constitution's right to assemble gave visitors the right to bypass the mostly lightweight barricades that resembled bicycle racks.
“I thought barricading the memorials showed no respect to veterans. I'm not saying veterans deserve special treatment, but they do deserve some respect,” said Jim Jeffries, 86, of New Brighton, who served in the Army during World War II and the Air Force during the Korean War.
Political observers described the barricades and subsequent protests over them as political theater. Park rangers did not allow a group of veterans from Mississippi past a barricade at the National World War II Memorial in a high-profile flap on the first day of the shutdown, further fanning flames — even though those veterans later were escorted into the war memorial, and people visited memorials throughout the shutdown. Hundreds of demonstrators stormed past barricades around the World War II Memorial in another protest on Sunday.
The local veterans planned to go to Washington on Oct. 1 but postponed the visit because of uncertainty surrounding the shutdown, said Lydian Fisher, 71, of Brighton in Beaver County, one of the bus trip's organizers.
The veterans rescheduled for Thursday, not knowing whether the shutdown would be resolved. A deal reached late Wednesday ended it.
“To see the way they operate down here, you really lose faith in your so-called leaders,” Daman said.
Since 2006, more than 1,600 veterans traveled from Western Pennsylvania to Washington on what was known simply as the “World War II Veterans Bus Trip.” The trip, made twice a year, is free to participants, thanks to donations.
Fisher said organizers included Korean War veterans because “we've been getting fewer and fewer calls from (World War II) veterans” because of their advancing age.
The veterans paid respects at the World War II Memorial and Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington and the Marine Corps War Memorial, also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, in Arlington, Va.
Many veterans used canes. Others used wheelchairs, with volunteers or Junior ROTC members from Ambridge Area and Beaver Area school districts pushing them. The vets included a husband and wife who met at the Pentagon and served together in the Air Force during the Korean War, Ernest Coker, 83, and his wife Ninfa, 80, of the North Side, along with two brothers who served in the Army during World War II, Elmer Glenn, 89, of Sarver and Albert Glenn, 86, of Apollo.
The World War II Memorial — a large, circular monument marked visually by 56 granite pillars, two fountains and two towering, 43-foot triumphal arches — is the newest war memorial on the National Mall. Many veterans raved about its design but said it was long overdue. It opened in 2004, almost 60 years after the war ended.
“Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. Only 1 million are still alive to see it today,” said Ralph Boura, 89, of Penn Township.
Tom Fontaine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7847 or firstname.lastname@example.org.