Yesterday, an Honor Flight of 100 World War II veterans on the Mississippi Gulf Coast flight broke down the barriers on the WWII monument, which had been closed due to the government shutdown. Today, another Honor Flight, including veterans from Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio, arrived hoping to see the memorial.
When a government shutdown leads to veterans who cannot visit a memorial in their own honor, it is easy to politicize the incident. But these veterans are not simply political props. Rather, they are men and women whose service supported this country, who fought to make our world better.
James Walter, from Kansas City, Missouri told me upon walking into the center of the memorial, “this is beautiful! We sure were hoping we would be able to get in here today. We’re really glad to be here.” These thoughts were echoed by Bill Lewis, accompanied by his son Rob, who told me, beaming, that “I am very, very pleased to see this.” Bill Forrester proclaimed this monument “beautiful.”
As Elsie Lemberger approached the monument, I asked her where she served. “I was in the Navy. I’m Rosie the Riveter! I really am excited. I can’t wait! I didn’t think I would ever see the day I would come here.”
As the Greatest Generation ages, for many, these Honor Flight trips are their one chance to see the memorial dedicated to them and their fallen comrades. With the shutdown locking up these open air monuments, there is the chance that others visiting in the coming weeks will lose that one opportunity.
One of the oldest men here is Jesse Cook, a 97 year-old African-American Army veteran, accompanied by his daughter Loretta Cook-Hannon. Cook-Hannon informed me that they were here with Honor Flight, which “allows veterans of foreign wars to see the memorials which they are responsible for.” For her, “my Dad is my best memory. My Dad was in World War II, in China, Burma, and India.” Cook paid me the honor of telling a part of his story:
I served in South East Asia during World War II as a cook. I was deferred twice before I got in, before being sent after my group to Asia. Jobs were hard to get, so I went to the Navy. I was selected for the Army. I followed my group over to Asia after my training, and joined the group that I served with until it was time for them to be rotated back to the States. The Army was on a rotation system; you stayed in an outfit so long and others would come in. I stayed in the outfit for a long time, until I was shipped out to the borders of Burma. I’ll tell you one thing: adventure was one of my incentives, and I enjoyed it, all the monuments that I saw.
Looking up at the Pacific side of the memorial, Cook grinned and his eyes shone. “I think this memorial is wonderful. I think it is. It sure has some wonderful architecture going on here, to build such a magnificent memorial in honor of the veterans.”
Seeing these men and women standing and sitting so proudly, with smiles of absolute delight on their faces brought to mind the black and white photos of those young Americans in uniform that stare out of history textbooks. When one man pulls out a perfectly white handkerchief to wipe his tears, I could not help but remember that for these veterans, the war was not in black and white, but full, living color.
The veterans were not alone, however. The sidewalk up to the memorial was lined with Americans; tourists from the Czech Republic, the Ukraine, and China; school children; active and retired military personnel; furloughed government workers; and young people on break from work, all of whom were waving flags and signs in support of our veterans.
Courtney Michaluk, 24, said: “We came to show support for the veterans who are here to see the memorials of the wars they fought in for the first time…We’re focusing on the positive and showing our veterans that we stand behind them, no matter what Congress or the administration says. I think this event goes beyond party affiliation. I think most people are here because it’s an American thing.”