WASHINGTON — Audree Morrison, a veteran of the Michigan National Guard, drove all night to be at the National World War II Memorial today to join other veterans and voice her concern about the ongoing federal government shutdown and the impact it could have on her educational and disability benefits.
Morrison, who was injured in training, ending up with a broken hip and three pelvic fractures, has been told her benefits could run out later this month if Congress doesn’t reopen the government.
“It’s kind of getting kicked while you’re already down, being in the military and if you’re already battling, trying to get education benefits, you know it’s not always the easiest process, or if you’re a disabled soldier like myself too, you wait so long to get everything taken care of and then you finally feel like you get some small victories getting everything taken care of and then when something big like this happens with the shutdown it really feels like you get kicked while you’re down even more,” Morrison said after a rally at the memorial that drew about 200 people and more than 30 veterans groups.
She said her “main focus” right now is “the other soldiers that are in the same boat as I am” because she works with other student veterans at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Kalamazoo, Mich. She said she came, driving the 12 hours with three other veterans, because, “I wanted to come to show support for them and advocate for them.”
In an interview with ABC News she said there is “a lot of anxiety” among the soldiers she works with.
“They’re worried about losing their homes, they’re worried about losing their cars, they’re worried about where they’re going to live if they’re going to be homeless, so it’s quite the undertaking for them right now,” Morrison said. “It’s very hard when you see things that you know should be getting done in a different way, and veteran’s benefits and taking care of them, I believe, should really be top priority in the country right now, and to see that not being top priority and seeing all these soldiers and these service members getting hurt from that and not knowing where they’re going to turn after all this time they’ve put in to serve and risking their lives or giving their lives and having their spouses and children left behind, it’s very difficult to watch.”
Among the people who attended the rally were veterans who just came to see the memorial that has been closed since the government shut down on Oct. 1. Although metal barricades were placed in front of the memorial, none of those who attended were stopped from going in.
The tone of the event differed from another rally at the memorial Sunday that featured former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and became quite heated when protesters carried the barricades to the White House, leaving them outside of the gates.
The rally today was organized by a group called The Military Coalition, which brought together more than 30 veterans advocacy groups including Jewish War Veterans, the Wounded Warrior Project and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Morrison drove with her friend Austin Hoyt, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan in both 2009 and 2011. He called the shutdown and congressional inaction “a mess.”
“Both sides need to work together, take care of this, everybody’s blaming everyone else, they need to sit down, focus on the important factors of getting our government running and get our veterans taken care of,” Hoyt said.
Many of the speakers, as well as those gathered, said it was time for Congress to stop playing games.
Herbert Rosenbleeth, national executive director with the Jewish War Veterans, told those gathered it was time for Washington to re-open the government and put veterans first.
“Our veterans served this country,” Rosenbleeth said. “We need the country to serve our veterans, military personnel, their dependents, and their survivors.”
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, also had a message for nearby lawmakers.
“We put the mission first, we put our country first. Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, that’s what you need to do now. Put the country first and end this shutdown,” Rieckhoff said. “In the Army, our values mean everything to us. Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, personal courage. That’s what these people stand for, that’s what this country stands for. That’s what we need our politicians to stand for now. Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, end this shutdown.”
Last week Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told a congressional oversight committee that compensation checks to 5.1 million veterans, many severely injured in combat, won’t be issued Nov. 1 if the government shutdown continues.
Gary Benenati, who served in the Marine Corps from 1999 to 2007, said he relies on the V.A. system for weekly appointments due to physical injuries he sustained serving, but also some mental care he needs as well.
“Not only do I have to worry about how I’m going to take care of and provide for my children, but veterans have a brotherhood, people just don’t understand how we care and love each other, and it’s, a lot of our pain isn’t even over ourselves, it’s for each other,” Benenati said.
“The sad part about it is that it’s not a handout — we signed a blank check to our nation, and they fill it out how they see fit,” he said. “I’m not representing any one party, I represent America. … I want the government absolutely back open, there’s no reason for it to be closed down. It’s politics and a game and it’s hurting our Americans and it’s embarrassing. It’s not our way of life, we’re a strong nation, we should not be acting in this way.”
He said he’s “losing sleep” and is “very stressed out” about the possibility of losing his benefits in just two weeks.
“I’ve had a couple of nights where I’ve cried,” Benenati said. “My wife has got to be there and my children got to see this and they’re young, they don’t understand.”
Maj. Gen. Andrew Davis who served 38 years in the Marine Corps and is now the executive director of the Reserve Officer’s Association of the United States said that although the Pay Our Military Act funded the active military, reservists have not been funded.
“You have 1.1 million serving reservists who did not have their weekend drills this month, who did not have their two-week annual training duty, and there’s two outcomes for that,” Davis said in an interview. “One is our nation’s readiness is degraded — 880,000 reservists have been to war in the last 12 years, the nation couldn’t have done what we did in the last 12 years. And the second is that while it’s not a lot of money, for many of these reservists, it’s the difference between having gas in the tank of their car and bread on the table and it puts a family hardship on them.”
Davis had some strong words for both Congress and the Obama administration and, like all of those who gathered at the memorial today, has had enough and says he hears from serving reservists who feel like they are “second class citizens in all of this.”
“The bigger message is that our elected representatives, whether they’re in the administration or on Capitol Hill, have a constitutional obligation to defend our country and provide an adequate national defense,” Davis said. “And instead of that constitutional responsibility, they’ve been marching to their own personal political drums.”
ABC News’ David Kerley, Alex Lazar, and Anneta Konstantinides contributed to this report.