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Vets, Republican lawmakers open barriers to get into WWII site

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - About 350 elderly veterans aided by Republican lawmakers ignored a government shutdown and pushed past barricades at the National World War II Memorial on Tuesday to get into the shuttered site.

Witnesses said U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas led a dozen Republicans in snipping yellow police tape that had barred the veterans, some in wheelchairs, from the closed site.

"The Red Sea parted, the wheelchairs started rolling in," Gohmert told reporters at the site on the National Mall.

Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, one of the lawmakers, said the veterans deserved entry even though the memorial had been shut down by Congress' standoff over healthcare reforms.

The Iowa and Mississippi veterans, who served in World War Two and the Korean and Vietnam wars, had been scheduled to visit the site on Tuesday.

But the National Park Service, which is in charge of the Mall, shuttered the 7.4-acre (three-hectare) memorial when the shutdown forced up to a million federal workers to stay home and museums and parks to close for lack of money.

Shortly after the barricades were forced open, dozens of veterans and tourists were strolling or being pushed around the sprawling site, watched by National Park Service rangers.

George Atkinson, 82, of Nevada, Iowa, a Coast Guard veteran of the Korean War, called the memorial "beautiful, very nice" and said he was glad to have gotten in despite the shutdown.

But he dismissed the standoff between President Barack Obama and Republicans, saying, "To me it's just like a bunch of little kids fighting over candy. The whole group ought to be replaced, top man down."

Carol Johnson, a National Park Service spokeswoman, said the agency was trying to determine how to proceed, including whether to keep the memorial open.

It was unclear how the Republican lawmakers learned about the veterans' visit. A congressman from one of their home states, Steve King of Iowa, was among those present.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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