Presenting a unified front, a nonpartisan coalition of 33 organizations representing more than 5.5 million veterans and members of the military spoke at the World War II Memorial on Tuesday morning to demand an end to the government shutdown.
“Our elected officials must understand that posturing and playing politics with veterans is unacceptable,” Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, said during the peaceful rally attended by several hundred supporters and journalists on a sunny morning.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has warned that unless the shutdown ends soon, the department will be unable to issue disability and pension checks for millions of veterans and survivors due to be sent Nov. 1.
“For many, those payments may be the primary or only source of income,” Augustine said. Many disabled veterans depend on VA pensions to cover mortgages, rents, utility bills, car payments and even food, he said.
“We have been assured and reassured by the president and by Congress that the budget won’t be balanced on the backs of veterans, yet here we are today,” said Steve Gonzales, assistant director of the American Legion.
“It’s a national embarrassment that veterans have to worry about getting their next disability or GI Bill payment,” said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Citing the example set by veterans of World War II and other conflicts, Rieckhoff urged the political players in Washington to “put the country first and end this shutdown.”
Several speakers said they oppose measures that would restore funding to the VA but not to some other parts of the government. “Fixing it little by little is not going to solve this problem for veterans,” said Ray Kelley, national legislative director for Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In contrast to some demonstrations over the two-week-long shutdown, including a protest Sunday during which demonstrators pulled down barriers, Tuesday’s rally had a peaceful, civil tone. No members of Congress delivered speeches. One veteran who held a sign blaming tea party activists for the shutdown was asked by organizers to stand outside the memorial grounds.
The rally was sponsored by the Military Coalition, an umbrella group representing veterans and military services organizations.
Several veterans attending the rally said they feel disheartened by the way veterans have been used for political purposes during the shutdown.
“I’m totally infuriated at the way they have used these memorials and cemeteries to make political points,” said William Szych, 60, who identified himself as a retired Air Force officer living in Alexandria.
William Garcia, 51, an Army veteran from Leesburg, attended the rally in a wheelchair. Garcia, who said he had a lower-back injury stemming from his service during the Iraq war, expressed a fear that if the shutdown is not ended soon, he will not receive his November disability payment.
“I’m one of the vets who’s at risk of losing everything I worked for and sacrificed for,” he said.