WASHINGTON – Thirty or so veterans from Western New York descended upon the National World War II Memorial on Wednesday with no uniformed officers and no barricades standing in their way.
What’s more, the majority of the World War II and Korean War veterans here for the latest local visit of veterans came with no strong partisan opinions about who was right and who was wrong and who is up and who is down in the wake of the federal government shutdown.
Instead, they remained focused on something much bigger and nobler than Washington’s modern-day battles: the fight they fought, and won, to save western civilization.
“It’s a great feeling,” said John Mikula, an Army Air Forces veteran from Niagara Falls, said as he looked back toward the memorial. “I’m 93, and seeing this, and seeing all these guys here, it brings the memories back.”
The memories varied, of course, from veteran to veteran. Some recalled the code in which they spoke as paratroopers; others remembered the chaos followed by victory at Normandy or the Battle of the Bulge.
Yet none of them was in much of a mood to play the blame game about a government shutdown that, for a very short time, barred World War II veterans from the memorial that honors them.
The closing of the memorial, along with other national monuments and parks, has been among the most controversial elements of the government shutdown that started Oct. 1 because Congress could not agree on government funding for the new fiscal year.
As recently as Sunday, Sen. Ted Cruz – the Texas Republican who headed the fight for confrontation that led to the shutdown – appeared at the memorial with former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin to decry its closure.
They did that even though the National Park Service, after closing the memorial on the first days of the shutdown, quickly changed course to remove the barricades every time a group of veterans arrived for a visit.
“There hasn’t been a problem since the first few days,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, who visited with the Western New York veterans. “The park rangers are just letting the veterans in.”
That’s a good move, Mikula said.
“Some things they should never close down,” he said.
Hearing about the controversy from 400 miles away, some of the veterans said they were concerned for a very short time that the shutdown would get in the way of their trip.
But now, they’re mostly just concerned for their country, which they remembered from its best days, when it united to defeat the threats posed by Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.
Surveying the political landscape, in which a handful of tea party Republicans drove the nation to the brink of default in hopes of ending “Obamacare” while the Democratic president looked on and refused to negotiate, the vets, in essence, rolled their eyes.
“I just can’t believe this is going on,” said Nelson Dietrich, of North Tonawanda, a former Army infantryman who celebrated his 88th birthday by visiting the memorial. “I just hope people remember this when it’s time to vote.”
Henry “Cowboy” Kusmierczyk, 91, of Lackawanna, sounded just as frustrated.
“You’ve got to have some give-and-take,” Kusmierczyk said. “You’ve got to learn that you’re only going to get a piece of the pie, not the whole pie. Politicians aren’t bad people, but they need to wake up and do something for the voters.”
On the local level, State Sen. George D. Maziarz, R-Newfane, has done just that. This is the sixth time his office has sponsored a trip to bring World War II veterans to Washington to see the memorial and the other sites.
This time, Mulvey Construction, the Walmart Foundation and the Niagara USA Chamber of Commerce served as the main sponsors of an event that’s making memories for Maziarz, as well as the veterans. He recalled that one veteran from a previous trip made clear to his family afterward that he enjoyed it so much that he insisted on being buried in his Honor Flight T-shirt.
As Maziarz was leading the veterans around the memorial, Democrats and Republicans were duking it out at a House hearing over who bears the blame for closing the memorial and other national landmarks after the shutdown.
Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., blamed National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, a Democratic appointee.
“You besmirched [the Park Service’s] reputation and soured relations with Congress,” Lamborn told Jarvis. “In my opinion, you have failed.”
That prompted Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., to laud Jarvis as an “exemplary” public servant and to decry “an audacious attempt by the majority to deflect responsibility and blame for the real-world consequences of a government shutdown.”
Meanwhile, longtime buddies Arthur Daigler, of Amherst, and Clinton Rockway, of Niagara Falls, reminisced about their fighting days while, like their comrades in arms, making little of the fight on Capitol Hill.
Neither Daigler nor Rockway thought that the shutdown would get in the way of their trip to Washington.
“I thought it was going to be OK,” said Daigler, 91. “We all thought it would blow over.”
News wire services contributed to this report. email: email@example.com