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Representatives of 33 veterans organizations gathered before the World War II Memorial in Washington on Tuesday to call for an end of the government shutdown that they say already is hurting veterans and the active duty and reserve forces.
"As we stand here ... military readiness is eroding, disabled veterans fear they will not be given checks. Dependents and survivors have that worry. That shouldn't be," said Herb Rosenbleeth, president of The Military Coalition, the umbrella organization made up of the country's leading veterans groups. "Our veterans served this country; we need the country to serve our veterans."
The gathering of veterans organizations and military associations at the memorial is the second event since Sunday intended to draw attention to the shutdown, which began Oct. 1 when Congress failed to pass a budget or continuing resolution for fiscal year 2014.
The Sunday demonstration also featured veterans, though they were largely overshadowed by several Republican members of the House and Senate and other speakers associated with the Tea Party. That demonstration was followed by a march to the White House, where one speaker claimed President Obama is a Muslim and should be arrested.
Paul Reickhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America -- the group credited with largely organizing the Tuesday event -- said in an interview afterwards that veterans are tired "of being a political 'chew-toy' " used by politicians and others "who say 'don't use our veterans for political games' while they're using veterans for political games."
Tuesday's show of unity by the veterans group, in contrast, steered clear of blaming either side for the shutdown and kept the focus on veterans and the military, with only representatives of Military Coalition groups taking to the microphone.
"We have to end this shutdown. Congress has to do its work," said Ray Kelly, national legislative director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars "Piecemeal will not work. Putting [the budget] together little by little is not going to solve the problem for veterans."
Andrew Davis, a retired Marine major general who is now executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, said Congress did not include National Guard Reserve funding in its hastily drafted and passed bill to ensure servicemembers were paid. That means no drill time for these groups, he said.
"For the last 12 years, the Reserve and Guard have been mobilized more than 883,000 times -- 330,000 of them more than once. These men and women also responded to help their fellow citizens during natural and ecological disasters such as hurricanes, flooding and oil spills," he said. "Yet, after returning from war or disaster, they feel they are being overlooked, making them feel [they] are just second class warriors."
Though The Military Coalition get-together stayed away from pointing a finger at any one party or group, one veteran did come to the event with a sign reading "VETERANS AGAINST INSANI-TEA," an obvious nod toward the Tea Party that has been the force behind the handful of lawmakers that so far have blocked a budget from passing.
David Roper of Alexandria, Va., said he served in Iraq from 2008-2009, but was not attending the event as a member of IAVA and did not stand with the 33 group representatives during the speeches.
Standing off to the side afterwards, he said blaming both sides for the shutdown is creating "false equivalencies."
"It's like saying a cold and cancer are both bad, so you can't decide which one is worse," he said.
Tom Tarantino, legislative director for IAVA, said the Coalition demonstration was intended to let all sides know that they have to end the shutdown without further delay.
"Ultimately, this isn't about assigning blame," he said. "The biggest problem with what we've seen in this whole saga is that inside the Beltway, inside Capitol Hill, down Pennsylvania Avenue, this is a game. Keeping score, scoring points ...who looks good today and who looks bad, who's got approval and who doesn't."
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