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Honor Flight vets stream past government barricades

Springfield-based charity says trips would be difficult to reschedule.

Springfield-based Honor Flight Network isn’t telling its 131 hubs in 42 states to cancel trips to the nation’s capital, even though the war memorials they plan to visit are technically closed because of the federal government shutdown.

“That’s an individualized hub decision,” Diane Gresse, executive director at Honor Flight’s national headquarters in Springfield, said Wednesday. “We can’t tell them to go or not to go.”

Most are following the high-profile lead set Tuesday at the World War II Memorial by an Honor Flight hub from Mississippi — ignore the barricades set up by the National Park Service and go anyway.

“They’re pretty much invested at this point,” Gresse said. “To my knowledge, no Honor Flight hub has canceled their flight this week.”

Just this week alone, 900 veterans are due to arrive in Washington, D.C., via Honor Flight to see their war memorials, Gresse said. Three hubs — from Chicago, Missouri and Kansas — were in Washington on Wednesday, barricades or no barricades.

“These veterans paid for that memorial,” Gresse said, “many of them with their lives.”

In all, the nonprofit organization started in Springfield in 2005 still has 4,300 veterans to transport there by the end of its annual flying season in mid-November, Gresse said.

Most have been on a waiting list one to three years.

“This is going to be the last opportunity a lot of these men and women are going to have,” she said.

Tuesday’s story of elderly Honor Flight veterans bypassing the barricades into the World War II Memorial went viral.

Many likened it to how they once stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, but in reality, it was much more civil, according to Gresse.

“World War II veterans are the most humble and stoic that you’ll ever meet,” she said.

For Gresse, a South Vienna native, it was heartwarming to see members of Congress push the barricades aside for the veterans. Members of Congress have told her they’ll maintain a presence on site, but she worries whether they’ll stick around come the weekend.

Reports on Wednesday said that U.S. Park Police had just given up and would allow access to the World War II Memorial in particular, saying there wasn’t much they could do to prohibit “First Amendment activities.”

Honor Flight Dayton, which serves as the local hub, has a flight scheduled for Oct. 12 for 36 veterans representing World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, said Jim Salamon, the hub’s director and president.

“It’s our intent to make the trip,” Salamon said.

Several Honor Flight Dayton board members have casually suggested doing what other veterans have been doing, Salamon said, in part because rearranging the flight isn’t possible.

The national publicity for Honor Flight comes with mixed feelings.

Access to the Honor Flight website on Wednesday was sporadic thanks to the increased traffic, which could prove beneficial for an organization that exists solely on donations.

Gresse spoke Tuesday with President Obama’s office in an attempt to persuade the White House to at least make a concession for veterans wanting to visit memorials on the National Mall.

“The answer,” she said, “was pretty much, ‘We have to be entirely funded. We can’t allow a concession like that.’ ”

And, so, technically, the memorials remain closed.

“It was just disheartening to know these men and women who fought for our freedoms today were being locked out of their own memorials,” she said.

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