Vets let into U.S. World War II Memorial, First Amendment cited

By Lacey Johnson

WASHINGTON, Oct 2 (Reuters) - The National Park Service gave elderly veterans access on Wednesday to the barricaded National World War II Memorial, the site of a skirmish in the partisan war over the U.S. government shutdown.

Veterans will be allowed into the memorial under the Constitution's First Amendment, which includes the right to free speech and assembly, said National Park Service spokeswoman Karen Cucurullo.

"It's allowed by law," she said, adding that a handful of other sites were also open as a "First Amendment demonstration."

World War Two veterans, many in wheelchairs, and up to a dozen Republican lawmakers pushed open barricades on Tuesday to get into the 7.4-acre (three-hectare) memorial on the National Mall.

The Mall had been shuttered under the federal government shutdown that started on Tuesday after Democrats refused to go along with Republican restrictions on President Barack Obama's healthcare program as a condition of funding the government.

The veterans had long been scheduled to visit, and Republican lawmakers denounced the Obama administration's closure of the site, saying it was an insult to veterans.

The National Park Service opened the site on Wednesday to a total of about 500 veterans from Chicago and Missouri. They were visiting under the non-profit Honor Flight program that helps veterans visit Washington memorials.

Tourists also were let in, but once the veterans left the barricades went back up. A handful of lawmakers, mostly Republicans, were there to greet veterans.

"We were about to think we weren't going to get in," said Frank Hanter, an 89-year-old veteran from Missouri, who was stationed in the Philippines during World War Two.

When asked how he felt about being greeted by lawmakers, he said it was "nice, but they probably ought to be working."

Adding to the partisan wrangling, the Republican National Committee offered to pay to keep the monument open. The Democratic National Committee shot back, calling the offer a "silly stunt."