War veterans storm barricades amid US govt shutdown

Compared to defeating Nazi Germany and the Japanese empire, storming the National World War II Memorial was a piece of cake for a hardy column of octogenarian US military veterans.

With help from a Congressional delegation, the 200-strong Mississippi Gulf Coast Honor Flight slipped through a barricade Tuesday to savor the grandeur of the nation's premier memorial to the 1939-45 conflict.

"We didn't come this far not to get in," sniffed one of the elderly veterans, quoted by the Stars and Stripes military newspaper, who defied US Park Police orders not to enter the grounds.

The memorial to the 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, and to the more than 400,000 who died, was among the iconic tourist landmarks up and down the National Mall closed to the public by the shutdown.

It is normally open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On Tuesday, it was ringed by grey steel barricades and yellow police tape, and its fountains were switched off, until the vets turned up in yellow and red T-shirts, riding wheelchairs and wielding canes.

In the United States, honor flights are charities that cover the cost of transporting veterans to the nation's capital to tour war memorials in the sunset years of their lives.

Some 700 veterans came to Washington last weekend alone, and 10 groups are expected this week, said Patrick McCourt, a former US army officer who now volunteers to welcome fellow vets making the pilgrimage to the Mall.

National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson said the Mississippi group's permit to visit the World War II memorial was revoked when it appeared the government would shut down -- but the vets came anyway.

"They've come a long way," acknowledged Johnson, who herself got a letter Tuesday informing her that, as a "non-essential" civil servant, she was being furloughed without pay.

With the barricades open, and the National Park Service figuring out whether to close them again, a trickle of tourists wandered onto the World War II memorial grounds later Tuesday -- a gaggle of Chinese visitors here, some individual American veterans there.

"This just seems to be an open space that should stay open," said Tom Carty, from the greater Boston area, who served as a lieutenant during the Vietnam War years, as he gazed over the Mall towards the shuttered Lincoln Memorial.

Korean War veteran Fred Martin, en route to Florida from their home in Wisconsin, had been looking forward to seeing the sights in Washington with his wife Judy before the shutdown threw a monkey wrench into their plans.

"One party is ridiculously trying to change a law that has been passed," said Martin, referring to the Republicans' bid to rewrite President Barack Obama's health care act -- the spark that ignited the shutdown.

With many government workers in Washington turning up at their offices Tuesday to collect their furlough notices, the streets of the capital were deceptively as busy as ever.

Taxi drivers reported no significant easing of traffic, and a Starbucks barista said business was livelier than usual as civil servants popped in for a final cappuccino with colleagues before going on forced leave.

Seizing the moment for a bit of publicity, several restaurants and bars in and around Washington wooed furloughed government workers with promises of free food and drinks upon presentation of official ID.

The alternative weekly City Paper came out with a helpful flowchart identifying where to go for free or discounted beer, wine, pizza, pasta, hamburgers, pulled pork -- even frozen yogurt.

The Daily Dish cafe in suburban Silver Spring offered free coffee, no purchase necessary -- except for members of Congress who were expected to pay double the usual price.

To burn off the calories, at least one gym offered free admission to government employees during off-peak hours.