As the government shutdown grinds into its third week, veterans benefits will draw the spotlight Tuesday in what could be the biggest protest yet aimed at pressing Congress and President Obama to solve the political crisis.
The Military Coalition, a group of 33 veterans and military organizations, is planning a rally at the World War II Memorial on Tuesday morning to demand an end to the government shutdown. The groups want to publicize the impact the shutdown is having on many vets and their families amid concerns of delayed disability pay, GI Bill education stipends and other benefits.
The American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars are among groups that will be represented. Steve Gonzalez – assistant director of the American Legion's Economic Division – will be among speakers emphasizing the impact on employment and training.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned last week that financing vet benefits could become difficult if the impasse continues. Compensation checks to 5.1 million veterans won't be issued Nov. 1, 433,000 fully disabled veterans might not receive payments and 360,000 surviving spouses and children of wartime veterans may stop getting VA money, Shinseki told a congressional oversight committee.
VA tuition and stipend payments to more than 500,000 veterans and spouses enrolled in college also are threatened. The VA had furloughed nearly 8,000 employees, he said.
The loss of benefits could cause "in a worst-case scenario, a suicide spike," Ryan Lamke, an Iraq war veteran diagnosed with traumatic brain jury and post-traumatic stress disorder, told CNN. "Emotional stability drops. I mean, we're talking about a population of veterans that are not seeking out the mental health care they so desperately need."
The protests come on the heels of a spate of protests Sunday that included a raucous effort at the WWII Memorial. A crowd converged National Mall, pushing through barriers to protest the memorial's closing. Some of the barriers were carried to the White House and dropped at the fence there.
Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas were among those who gathered Sunday morning, along with former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.
"Tear down these walls," the crowd chanted. Protesters also sang God Bless America and other patriotic songs as they entered the memorial plaza.
The memorial has become a political symbol in the battle between Democrats and Republicans over who is at fault since the shutdown began. Earlier rallies have focused on allowing access for World War II veterans visiting from across the country with the Honor Flight Network.
Contributing: Associated Press