Vets frustrated with the shutdown rally at WWII Memorial

BY Cindy Huang  October 15, 2013 at 5:17 PM EST

Iraq war veteran Bill Garcia voiced his frustration with the government shutdown at the World War II Memorial Tuesday. Photos by Cindy Huang

Dressed in navy sweat pants and sweatshirt and sporting an “Iraqi Freedom Veteran” hat, Bill Garcia used two canes to navigate his wheelchair around the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., Tuesday. He lost the use of legs in the Iraq war and has since been receiving veterans disabilities and vocational rehabilitation. But if the partial government shutdown — now on Day 15 — drags on much longer, the federally employed veteran fears his disabilities payments could soon stop along with his salary.

“The uncertainty broods over you, adds to the PTSD, adds to the anxiety,” Garcia said. “It’s stressful.”

Garcia said he lost two friends in the war. And another one of his friends lost an arm in combat.

“We were there when we were called to war,” said Garcia. And looking out onto the memorial, he said, “You said you’d take care of us after we do this.”

Edith Smith, widow of a Vietnam veteran, came to the rally to show her support.

Garcia traveled from northern Virginia to attend a rally at the memorial. The non-partisan event was organized by a coalition of 33 veteran organizations to call for protection of veteran benefits and services and an end to the government shutdown. Hundreds of veterans and supporters from organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and National Military Family Association, among others, were in attendance.

The memorial, which has been closed since the shutdown began on Oct. 1, has become a symbol of the public’s frustration. Barriers to the park have been routinely broken, kicked off when a group of visiting World War II veterans were escorted past the gates by members of congress on the very first day of the shutdown. On Sunday, a group of protesters, led by Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah, ripped out the gates and dropped them off at the White House gate.

Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned Wednesday that if the shutdown continues, the department will be unable to issue disability and pension checks come Nov. 1, and will see an increase in the backlog on disabilities claims.

“We have been assured that budget won’t be balanced on backs of veterans, but here we are today,” Steve Gonzales, from the American Legion, said to the morning crowd at the memorial.

Gonzales said that veterans who are transitioning back to civilian life rely on programs to fund their education, provide them with temporary housing and assist them in the job search. And many of these programs have lost or are in danger of losing government funding.

Standing in the middle of the barricaded memorial, Ray Kelley from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, told the crowd that the government must make veterans a priority.

“It’s time to take the barrier behind you down, not for a while, not for a political stunt, but forever,” said Kelley.

And this loss of funding is also hitting military families that rely on benefits.

Edith Smith is a widow of a Vietnam veteran who died of service-related injuries in 1998. She receives Social Security and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, a payment to survivors of servicemembers who died in the line of duty or as a result of service-related injuries.

She’s not worried about the government halting her own benefits, but rather those of younger widows, many of whom have become the sole provider of their families.

“Many of our young widows are enrolled in college,” said the 73-year-old widow. “How will they make their college payment and put food on the table?”

Dressed head to toe in a light pastel yellow and sporting a red and white silk scarf, Smith holds her composure as she expresses her frustration.

“You cannot judge someone until you walk in their shoes,” said Smith. She admits she doesn’t know what’s keeping her political leaders from coming to a deal and opening the government, but she says they “are responsible and accountable for things and I don’t think they’ve done their due diligence.”

A handful of veterans who came out to the memorial said they were not heavily impacted by the shutdown. They came to express their outrage at the way the government has treated veterans.

Mark Morse is an Afghanistan war veteran and federally furloughed employee. With the promise of retropay, he said he’s not overly concerned with his financial future.

But he said the government is failing to “honor [their] duty to those who served.”

A park ranger who formerly worked at the National Mall, Morse said it’s difficult to see the memorial closed.

“It’s highly disrespectful of those the men and women who have made sacrifices for this country,” said Morse.

Some veterans see the closed memorial as a reminder for the government’s neglect of veterans’ needs.

“They’re using politics to play with people’s lives,” said Garcia.