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Congressman Steven Palazzo was willing to go to jail.
The representative from Mississippi’s Fourth Congressional District was standing on the Washington Mall Tuesday – outside a barricade that had been erected around the World War II Memorial.
He was standing shoulder to shoulder with members of the Greatest Generation – 91 Mississippians who fought valiantly during World War II. Their families had also gathered along with eight members of Congress.
They had traveled many miles only to be told the open-air memorial was closed – on account of the federal government shutdown.
The memorial that had been built for the aging warriors was barricaded and roped off with yellow tape. The water features were turned off and the bathrooms were locked. Armed park police stood nearby.
The congressman worked in vain to try to convince the National Park Service to open the memorial.
He called the Department of Interior but they did not intervene.
He even wrote to President Obama – pleading with him to open the memorial so that the elderly men could lay flowers and pay their respects to fallen brothers. But the president remained silent.
“They did not lift one finger to help these veterans,” Palazzo told me. “It is sad that they would not even make an exception for our World War II veterans.”
And so it was on a cool autumn day that the congressman from Mississippi stood alongside his constituents and he felt a stirring in his soul.
“I was nervous but my number one priority was the safety and welfare of the veterans,” he said. “This is something they wanted to do. This is their memorial. It was built to honor them.”
They even asked park officials on the mall to reconsider – but they would not budge.
So Palazzo gathered together his colleagues. There was Sen. Roger Wicker from Mississippi and Rep. Louie Gohmert from Texas. Rep. Michele Bachmann from Minnesota was there along with Rep. Steve King from Iowa, Rep. Alan Nunnelee from Mississippi, Rep. Bill Huizenga from Michigan, Rep. Gregg Harper from Mississippi and Rep. Spencer Bachus from Alabama.
Palazzo had decided to crash the gates and break through the barricades. And the United States being a constitutional republic – he decided to put his idea to a voice vote.
It passed unanimously.
Someone had a video camera and recorded the moment when the crowd applauded as Palazzo and Gohmert unhitched the barricades and opened the gates to the memorial.
“These are people who were not stopped by the Nazis, not stopped by fascist, not stopped by kamikazis. It just didn’t seem right that some little bicycle racks should be able to stop them,” Gohmert told me.
Bagpipes played "Amazing Grace" as the gentleman from Mississippi escorted his constituents to their memorial. They laid a wreath at a memorial for the Magnolia State. There were tears and smiles and memories – memories of a generation that changed the world.
“It’s been a huge emotional roller coaster,” the congressman told me. “This morning we were heartbroken. We were mad. We were angry. We were uncertain. We didn’t know what to expect. It turned out great.”
Gohmert called the decision to barricade the open-air memorial mean-spirited and beyond the pale.
“This is an open-air memorial for heaven’s sake,” he said. “It’s beyond outrageous to say that people have to walk around the exterior instead of walking across the middle. You have to be pretty hard-hearted, pretty petty to say we’re going to keep these guys away from their own memorial.”
Park police were on hand – but no one was arrested and they did not intervene.
“They did the honorable thing and stood down,” Palazzo said. “We don’t fault them or the staff there one bit.”
And while the Mississippi veterans were able to pay their respects, it’s unclear what will happen with other Honor Flight guests.
A spokesperson for the organization tells me nearly 1,000 veterans are expected to visit the World War II Memorial this week. Some have been on a waiting list to visit the nation’s capitol for more than a year.
“It’s very disheartening to know these veterans are flying across the country to see this memorial that they’ve waited for years to see and they’re being locked out of the memorial,” Executive Director Diane Gresse told me.
She said for many this is a one-time, one-shot trip of a lifetime.
“A lot of these veterans will not be alive next year,” she said quite frankly.
It’s unfortunate that President Obama did not respond to Palazzo’s reasonable request. But this president has a penchant for being petulant.
Nevertheless, the good people of Mississippi’s Fourth Congressional District should hold their heads high. They were well served by their representative – a man willing to go to jail to defend the honor of the Greatest Generation.
Rep. Palazzo – you are a great American. And should you need bail money, give me a call.