Members of a newly established veterans' vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial furled their flags, folded their tent and left the site after just three days yesterday, complaining that the U.S. Park Service had "double-crossed" them.
Chris McLaughlin, the leader of the group, said he and the other three veterans who had been keeping the vigil were forced to leave because the Park Service had refused to allow them to accept donations of money, which they need to pay for housing, utilities and food. McLaughlin said the group, called Veterans' Vigil-POWs/MIAs, had collected $1,000 since Sunday, the first day of the new vigil.
McLaughlin said that a U.S. Park Police officer came to the site yesterday afternoon and told them to remove the plastic box with the sign that read: "This vigil exists through the good will and generosity of the American people."
"We have been double-crossed by the Park Service," said McLaughlin as he and the other veterans prepared to leave the site just east of the memorial.
Park Service spokeswoman Sandra Alley said yesterday that the donations box was removed because no organization is allowed to solicit money on federal parkland and that the permit the group signed specifically states that.
"We can't say because your cause is wonderful, we will make an exception," Alley said. "We don't have the authority to make exceptions."
McLaughlin's team replaced other veterans who had kept the vigil from the opening of the memorial in November 1982 until they left last week, and McLaughlin complained yesterday that the Park Service was treating his group more harshly than the earlier one.
"Today they enforced a rule that they didn't enforce" for the others, Mclaughlin said. "It's a matter of honor with us. We aren't going to keep putting the donation box back out on the desk after the police officer told us to put it away. And now we are forced to close down."
Alley said, however, that the first group of veterans did not take donations, but sustained themselves by selling "acceptable items," which is permitted by the Park Service.
Both vigil groups were established to create an informal, 24-hour-a-day honor guard at the memorial and to keep the POW-MIA issue alive.
McLaughlin said he wasn't sure what his group would do next. Then he added: "To a lot of Americans, this memorial is a tourist attraction. To us, it's very personal."