Smith: Petty politics leads to WWII vets' mistreatment at memorial

Smith: Petty politics leads to WWII vets' mistreatment at memorial

October 7th, 2013 Robin Smith in Opinion Columns

Robin Smith

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

In May of 2004, Bronze Star and Purple Heart decorated veteran and former Sen. Bob Dole joined FedEx Chairman Fred Smith to dedicate the World War II Memorial as co-chairmen of a private fundraising effort.

I wonder if they ever believed a president's administration would order barricades to obstruct the open-air monument.

You see, these two gentlemen gave of their time and work to lead a commission that raised 92 percent of the $197 million total funding that built the memorial. The grounds consist of triumphal arches, pillars, a Freedom Wall of gold stars honoring the more than 400,000 who died for America encircling a fountain. The 7.4 acre courtyard sits at the end of the Reflecting Pool that begins at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial and in closest proximity to the Washington Memorial.

The inspiration of WWII veteran Roger Durbin began in 1987 working with Ohio Democrat Rep. Marcy Kaptur. After successfully gaining a senate co-sponsor, South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond, and years of advocacy, the World War II Memorial Act became law, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

On Tuesday, the first day of the "government shutdown," 92 Mississippi veterans, many of whom were octogenarians with physical limitations, were greeted by barricades denying access to the WWII Memorial site. These Honor Flight heroes were participating in the non-profit's mission to honor U.S. veterans.

The organization's website simply states, "We transport our heroes to Washington, D.C., to visit and reflect at their memorials." According to their schedule, Honor Flight will sponsor two Tennessee groups in our nation's capitol on Saturday, Oct. 12 with group visits planned during all but six days during October.

If you've ever visited this memorial, along with most others on the National Mall, they're open with no ticketing or admission requirements. National Park Service (NPS) staff may be on hand for information, direction and assistance. But, just as any public park or sadly, a cemetery, access is open.

The Mississippi group's host, U.S. Sen. Steven Palazzo, contacted the Department of the Interior to submit a request for access upon their arrival due to their concerns. Sen. Palazzo of Mississippi moved onto direct calls with the White House liaison after the initial rejection.

The senator, a Gulf War veteran, was stunned when given the response that: "It's a government shutdown, what do you expect?" from the White House.

Carol Johnson, spokeswoman for the NPS, substantiated the barricade of the WWII Memorial and other National Mall monuments as being initially directed by the White House's Office of Management and Budget.

Several Members of Congress made the obvious point that blockading these monuments actually cost more than simply leaving access open to the public.

I think we can agree that preventing hundreds of men, and women, who actively defended our nation in Western Europe against Hitler's Germany and in the Pacific against the Imperial Japan at Pearl Harbor is more than petty politics. It stoops to maliciously targeting citizens to pay the price for a political mud fight.

Fred Smith noted in 2004, "...the Second World War came to represent an entire generation of Americans who selflessly left their homes for battlefields, factories and farms, doing whatever it took to meet the needs of a nation at war."

To date, these veterans have been able to get around the government barricades to reflect on their service and to honor those who lost their lives.

But will our nation be able to overcome the political obstacles of day-in-day-out, around-the-clock campaigning absent of effective governing?

Robin Smith served as chairwoman of the Tennessee Republican Party, 2007 to 2009. She is a partner at the SmithWaterhouse Strategies business development and strategic planning firm and serves on Tennessee's Economic Council on Women.