William Gladstone, prime minister of Great Britain in the 19th century, once said, "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure exactly the sympathies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”
As hundreds of World War II veterans from Mississippi and Iowa descended upon their beloved memorial site last week and were turned away by National Park Service (NPS) rangers, it was not surprising that many Americans questioned the amount of respect and loyalty of the very Congress that had sent them to war.
These veterans were participants in The Honor Flight Network, which brings groups of aging World War II veterans from across the country for free to visit the memorial built in their honor. They were met with metal barricades draped in yellow police tape surrounding the perimeter of the site. The National Park Service had erected the barricades in the early morning hours of October 1, and on October 4, NPS employees could still be seen operating a forklift to reinforce the barriers, as well as securing wire links between openings in the barricades.
Given that there are usually few if any NPS employees working at the World War II Memorial, and given that the memorial itself was funded by more than $197 million in cash and private pledges from individual Americans, corporations, foundations, students, and veterans groups and not the federal government, it's possible that the cost to shut down the open-air memorial has ended up costing taxpayers more than keeping it open would have
According to the memorial’s webpage, these donations and pledges were used to fund the $182 million costs of the memorial, which included site selection and design, construction and sculpture, a National Park Service maintenance fee required by the Commemorative Works Act, groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies, fund-raising, and the 11-year administrative costs of the project between when it began in 1993 and when it was completed in 2004. The remaining $15 million was held on deposit with the U.S. Treasury in a National WWII Memorial Trust Fund to be used by the American Battle Monuments Commission solely for the memorial site, and remains there to this day.
In a recent CNN article, Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), estimated the cost to pay five NPS guards who watch over the memorial site for a 30-day period to be $150,000, or $5,000 a day. The RNC offered the United States government a check in this amount to cover the expenditure, and invited the Democratic National Committee to help pay for proposed security as well, to no avail.
House and Senate Democrats rejected a measure introduced by Republicans to reopen portions of the government, including the National Park Service and the processing of claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid responded to the bid by stating “Republicans are trying to cherry-pick some of the few parts of government that they like,” implying that the entire government should be reopened, not just the parts that Republicans seem to like. Even President Obama claimed he would veto any “piecemeal” legislation that would restore funding only to certain parts of the government.
For the 1.7 million Americans still alive who served in World War II, the site stands as a symbol of sincere gratitude, a precious gift from the American people to honor their dedication and sacrifice. Their time to enjoy it is dwindling fast. The temporary closing of this memorial site extends far beyond politics, power, and money. It is simply a matter of principle.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, by the year 2036, there will no longer be any living World War II veterans. The political blame game is not the standard of respect that our government should set for our nation’s heroes. If the nation cannot uphold a standard of respect for those who have fought and died for the very freedoms we enjoy today, it is difficult to imagine Congress respecting and upholding current and future laws that govern our nation.
While the barricades, wire, and police tape still stand, the government shutdown won’t prevent hundreds more World War II veterans from visiting their monument this week, as the carefully planned and expensive Honor Flight trips are too far along to cancel now. After all, there were no barricades to keep them from the beaches of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944, or from fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the war against oppression.
For some of these veterans, their visit to the World War II memorial will be their first, and for others, their last. One aspect of the shutdown that is now certain: It is not the government itself that ends up paying a hefty price, but rather the very people who fought and died to protect it.