PLATTSBURGH — The gridlock and confusion of the government shutdown did not stop the North Country Honor Flight from bringing World War II veterans to visit the memorials in Washington, D.C., on Saturday.
The flight, taking off from Plattsburgh, carried 15 veterans in their 80s and 90s. Each veteran was accompanied by a volunteer guardian. The plan was to visit the World War II Memorial, the Iwo Jima Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery.
But with the government shutdown continuing, these sites are officially closed.
“We walked right in,” said North Country Honor Flight Director Danny Kaifetz.
At the World War II Memorial, some members of the public were also allowed in behind the group — some of them because they had First Amendment permits from the National Park Service, as did the Honor Flight group itself.
“For the past few days, it’s been blocked off to the public,” Kaifetz said.
If the Honor Flight group alone is allowed in, the opportunity for interaction with the public is lost, Kaifetz said. Thus, Kaifetz was happy to see that there were other people being allowed in at the World War II Memorial.
“It’s a beautiful part of the experience for them, having people here who want to thank them and hug them and cry with them.”
At the World War II Memorial, the North Country Honor Flight group met Congressman Bill Owens. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders sent an emissary from the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which he chairs. Two of the veterans in the North Country group are from Vermont.
A crew from Fox News joined the North Country Honor Flight group, traveling on the bus, spending the day with them and interviewing them.
With the trip taking place in the midst of the government shutdown, Kaifetz noted, “There is more attention on the Honor Flight than there ever has been.”
After their visit to the World War II Memorial, the Honor Flight group visited the Iwo Jima Memorial. The Arlington Police were waiting — and escorted them in.
Then, the police escort took them to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where they had front row seats for the changing of the guard.
“Nothing slowed us down, nothing stopped us,” Kaifetz said.
A dramatic scene played out as they departed the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and left the green grass and white stones of Arlington National Cemetery behind them.
For the sake of mobility, all the group members are transported in wheelchairs during that phase of the trip, whatever their physical condition. Leaving Arlington, Kaifetz said, “we wheeled them out in formation.”
In the crowd looking on, everyone stood at attention as they saw the aged veterans in the wheelchairs advancing in military formation.
During the visits to the memorials themselves, the guardians accompanying the veterans would draw back and allow time for quiet reflection.
“They have good discipline of when to interact and when to just be a silent companion,” Kaifetz said.
For Richard Jones, 85, of Peru, the Honor Flight on Saturday was “really a wonderful experience.” At the memorials, he said, “there were some police there, but they let us in.”
He wanted to encourage World War II veterans who have not yet taken an Honor Flight to sign up for one of the upcoming trips next spring.
Jones was a Marine during World War II, serving in the Pacific.
“What really brought me to tears was the Iwo Jima Memorial.”
Jones was also moved by the warmth of the people they met.
“We met all kinds of people thanking us for our service.”
Kaifetz believes that many of the veterans who visit the memorials feel “relieved of the fear they have carried — the fear that people will forget, not only what they did, but those who were lost by their sides.
“The memorials are monuments — it’s almost like visiting Stonehenge.
“They look like they will last forever.”