Military veterans rally at WWII Memorial

WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - The third week of the federal government shutdown began Tuesday with a brief but sincere rally that drew dozens of veterans to the National World War II Memorial.

A coalition of military groups urged President Obama and Congress to end the shutdown before its impact hits veterans and their families. The Military Coalition, a group of 33 veterans and military organizations, says it wanted to publicize what veterans will face if disability pay, GI Bill education stipends and other benefits are delayed.

Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, told the rally crowd that veterans will unable to pay their rent, utilities, tuition payments and other critical bills.

"For many, these payments may be the only, or primary, source of income," Augustine said. "Posturing and playing politics with veterans is unacceptable."

Like other speakers at Tuesday's rally, Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, did not point blame at any political party in particular. Instead, he called on all sides in Washington to realize the damage they were doing to veterans and urged them to find a solution.

"We all stuck together when we were in combat. We put the mission first. We put our country first," Rieckhoff said. "Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, that's what you need to do now. Put the country first and end this shutdown."

The stakes are high for millions of veterans. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned last week that compensation checks to 5.1 million veterans won't be issued Nov. 1 if the shutdown doesn't end soon. Shinseki said 433,000 fully disabled veterans might not receive payments and 360,000 surviving spouses and children of wartime veterans may stop getting VA money.

Tuesday's rally comes on the heels of a spate of recent protests that included a raucous effort Sunday at the WWII Memorial. A crowd converged on the National Mall, pushing through barriers to protest the memorial's closing since the shutdown began Oct. 1. Some of the barriers were carried to the White House and dropped at the fence there.

Caroline Bier, who attended Tuesday's rally, said she didn't want to take part in Sunday's event because she viewed it as a political rally more inspired by Tea Party anger at the president rather than a simple show of support for veterans hurt by the government shutdown.

"I think they had an agenda, and it was against President Obama," she said. "This is more of vets coming together, wanting change for the common good."

Bier and her husband, Jesse, are both retired Marines. Caroline is now a civilian analyst for the Marine Corps and was briefly furloughed after the government shut down. But Jesse is 100% disabled from post traumatic stress disorder he experienced during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and more than half their income is made up of his disability payments.

They came to Tuesday's rally because they don't know if their next check will arrive come the first of the month.

"This is a huge slap in the face," said Jesse Bier, 42, of the threat to veteran benefits. "I don't want to go through this again."

Gary Noel, a Floridian who was visiting D.C., decided to stop by the rally to support vets and to lend his voice to the chorus lambasting the National Park Service' decision to barricade the WWII Memorial.

"I just wanted to see it firsthand because I can't imagine what stupidity has gotten us to this point," said Noel, a former finance worker at Disney World whose father served in the Army during World War II. "Why does something this solemn and sacred get so political?"

Noel, like others at Tuesday's rally, blames both major political parties for the ongoing shutdown and the looming threat of default.

"This town -- there's no one left that's got any common sense," he said. "Throw them all out. I would love to see what would happen if we started from scratch."


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