WASHINGTON — Military veterans are declaring war on the government shutdown.
After a group of veterans broke down the barricades at the national World War II Memorial Tuesday afternoon, organizers of one Hero Flight Network group told BuzzFeed it wasn’t the last Washington would hear from them. Veterans are plotting another protest at the same place Wednesday, and expressed interest in staging similar events at sites across the nation’s capital, including the Lincoln Memorial — an act of civil disobedience that would likely pour fuel on the already highly flammable politics of the government shutdown.
“We have people here that are 80 and 90 years old and they closed down all the bathrooms?” said Tony Nussbaum, a 25-year veteran of the Air Force from Iowa and a leader of the state’s Hero Flight group. “I’m about to just start pissing on the trees.”
The World War II Memorial on the National Mall became a political battlefield Tuesday, with conservatives excoriating Democrats for the monument’s closure as they escorted busloads of war veterans past bewildered park rangers and into the shuttered monument.
On Wednesday, the scene could repeat itself when groups from the Honor Flight Network — a national charity that brings aging World War II veterans to visit the national monument to the conflict they fought in — are scheduled to arrive at the massive outdoor memorial. Meanwhile, veterans have pondered staging a similar protest at the Lincoln memorial, said Jamie Miller, a five-year veteran of the Marine Corps and another organizer of the Iowa group that stormed the World War II memorial Tuesday.
“We are thinking about jumping the Lincoln memorial too,” he said. “If Lincoln was a war memorial I would do it in a heart beat.”
Wednesday’s rally at the World War II is set to become a political sideshow to the larger shutdown debate, with Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus urging Republicans to show up at the event with American flags to support the veterans and attack Democrats and Barack Obama. Those RNC supporters that show up will find a lot of Republican lawmakers — and at least one Democrat, Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill — at the memorial waiting for them.
The abundance of lawmakers worries Jim McLaughlin, national chair of Honor Flights Network, who said he wishes those visiting the memorials would keep politics out of it. He said the flights are planned months in advance at great expense to commercial airlines, so it wasn’t feasible for Honor Flights to shut down the trips as the government closed.
“I know some of the folks that showed up this morning are attempting to politicize it and I don’t want that to happen,” said McLaughlin. He also defended the rangers who initially tried to keep the veterans out of the memorials. “The Park Service is doing what they were instructed to do,” he said.
McLaughlin called on members who come to the World War II memorial to support veterans, and not to use the opportunity to score political points.
“I don’t want it to be political at all,” he said. “That part of it I don’t like. The fact that the veterans got in? I’m delighted.”
But in the politically charged atmosphere of the shutdown — with public outrage growing as the country becomes more aware of its lawmakers’ incompetence — it will be tough to keep partisanship out of even routine war memorial visits.
On Tuesday, Republicans used the World War II memorial event to blame Obama and the Democrats for the shutdown. About a dozen Republican members were on hand, according to McLaughlin — including tea party favorites like Minnesota’s Michelle Bachmann and Iowa’s Steve King — and he credited them with cutting the tape and moving the mobile fences that kept the public away from the shuttered memorial.
But the organizers on the ground said some politicians were there for their own benefit.
“Bachmann was not doing jack. She was not in the memorial in any way and didn’t even touch a barricade,” said Nussbaum. “She was just standing in the front with a microphone in her mouth.”
Though they publicly shied away from politics, it was the Honor Flight organizers who reached out to the Republican lawmakers in most cases, not the other way around.
“We got on the horn with the King office and he sent an entourage,” said Miller. “Kudos to Steve King. He did us right.”
Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk, who plans to escort the Chicago veterans to the World War II memorial Wednesday, was also contacted by organizers of the event and asked to come. He signed on to the political messaging in a brief interview outside the World War II Tuesday.
“It’s the president’s [fault]” the memorial is closed, Kirk said. “He’s having a long temper tantrum. He thinks he can instruct the country that we should all spend money and raise taxes just like he thinks and I think he’s absolutely incorrect. He’s shaking in his boots that people actually experience Obamacare and they will never vote Democrat again.”
Kirk said “some Republicans have misinterpreted our mandate” in the shutdown fight, saying they “won” on the fight to “not raise taxes.”
“The president thinks you have too much money and he wants it in the government hands,” Kirk said.
The organizer of the Missouri delegation, Dave Hall of the Franklin County, Missouri, Honor Flight, reached out to Republican Sen. Roy Blunt to join the veterans and got a “maybe.” He didn’t reach out to McCaskill, but she’s coming anyway.
“She came one time and a couple of other times. She just always had one reason or another not to come so I didn’t bother calling this time,” he said. “It’s not a Republican or a Democrat thing.”
And while the politics of the shutdown has so far appeared to favor Democrats, the memorial protests could serve as a flashpoint that turns public opinion against the White House.
On Tuesday, The Daily Caller reported that a Mississippi Republican representative attempted to get a special pass for the Hero Flight veterans from the Department of the Interior but was denied. A White House official reportedly told organizers, “It’s a government shutdown, what do you expect?” when asked about opening the memorial to the veterans. The White House did not respond to BuzzFeed’s request for comment Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the veterans themselves are unimpressed with everyone in Washington.
“People here need to be thinking about serving their country and not their own sorry butts,” said one Iowa veteran on hand for the Tuesday’s rally. “I wish more of them came down today so i could tell them to get their heads out of their asses.”