By Scott Dance, The Baltimore Sun
7:53 PM EDT, October 2, 2013
WASHINGTON — Nothing was going to stop Jack Poitras from playing taps at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Wednesday, not even the National Park Police.
"I said, 'I am willing to be arrested,'" the Vietnam veteran from Missouri recalled. He had been told the nation's memorials to those who served with him, in World War II and the Korean War, would be closed the day he and scores of other veterans made long-planned trips by plane, tour bus and wheelchair.
For 55 years, Poitras has played the bugle at military funerals at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, and he wasn't going to miss what could be his only chance to do it on some of the nation's most hallowed ground.
Some public rule-bending allowed the veterans — and a few politicians — to slip beyond the metal bars despite a federal government shutdown stretching into a second day. Still, the coincidence of the veterans' excursion with the impasse on Capitol Hill brought a celebration of service and sacrifice face to face with government dysfunction, political jockeying and all of the consequences.
"You've got a collection of guys that got it done in an area with a collection of guys that can't get it done," said Brian Krueger, a municipal worker from St. Louis who brought his 92-year-old neighbor Charlie Frienza, a veteran of the Omaha Beach invasion and Battle of the Bulge, to see the memorial to his sacrifices.
As buses carrying several veterans groups from across the country lined up outside the World War II memorial, completed in 2004, anticipation over a possible confrontation with park rangers brought out a crowd eager to support the servicemen and women. Groups of veterans had crossed the barriers Monday, but parks officials maintained that the monuments would remain closed, along with the rest of the federal government.
"You don't see this much press or congressmen usually," Old Town Alexandria, Va., resident Darlene Christianson said as she held a sign that read "We love our veterans" in blue and red marker.
"Thank you for your service. Welcome to your memorial," Springfield, Va., retiree George Kerestes told each veteran, with a handshake.
The nonprofit Honor Flight program brings veterans from across the country to the monuments on day trips every day, but the fact that the sites were officially closed brought out more supporters.
"I've never seen so much appreciation since I've been a veteran," said 88-year-old Barney Barnard, a veteran of the Pacific front visiting with a group from the Kansas City area. "Every place we've been it's just appreciation, appreciation, appreciation."
But the federal shutdown also contributed to political tension. As new groups of veterans were cheered along the pathway to the World War II monument, chants from a protest of government subcontractors competed for attention and drew shouts of "shut up" from the military supporters.
Others frustrated with Congress' inaction vented directly to lawmakers touring the monuments with their constituents.
Jim O'Keefe, on furlough from a management job with the Peace Corps, visited in honor of his father and uncles, World War II veterans. But he found himself in a spat with Rep. John Carter. O'Keefe accused the Texas Republican of grandstanding. Carter defended himself, but the civil servant had the last word when Carter ended the debate by wishing O'Keefe a nice day.
"I'm having a bad day, and so is everyone who's not getting a paycheck," O'Keefe shouted.
Confronted over the impasse, other politicians took partisan jabs.
"People are trying to score political points on the backs of veterans," Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, said as she posed for photos and walked the monument with veterans from her home state. "I think there's more people with common sense in the parks department than there are in the tea party."
For the veterans, their moment would not be spoiled. Some wait years for their turn to visit the nation's capital, with priority given first to veterans with terminal illnesses, and then those who served in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, respectively. The group from St. Louis flew into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport just after 9 a.m. and were set to depart from Washington's Reagan National Airport by 7 p.m.
"It's inconvenient," 84-year-old Garlan Poeppelmeier of St. Louis said of the shutdown. Being allowed inside anyway made it all the more special for the veteran, who served as a bridge engineer in Germany. "It means a whole lot."
Each veteran, many of them in wheelchairs, is accompanied by a "guardian" like Jake Heller, a volunteer from Union, Mo.
"It's a huge honor for us to be able to do this," Heller said. "I'm very appreciative they let these guys in here. It's the least they can do."
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Mark Barnard, who brought his father, the Pacific veteran. "I'm glad they got the gates open for us."
Despite uncertainty over whether the veterans would get to see the monuments up close, Jim Tayan, who organized the group from St. Louis, said they wouldn't have been stopped by barriers and caution tape.
"They took Omaha Beach," Tayan said. "A little yellow ribbon is not going to stop them."
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun