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U.S. veterans groups take shutdown protest to White House gates

Protesters with the "Million Vet March on the Memorials" rally in front of the National U.S. World War II Memorial in Washington October 13,
Protesters with the "Million Vet March on the Memorials" rally in front of the National U.S. World War II Memorial in Washington October 13,

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Veteran and Tea Party groups protested the U.S. government shutdown in Washington on Sunday, taking down barricades around the World War Two memorial on the National Mall before marching to the gates of the White House.

Police officers, some in riot gear, pushed back against the crowd when it got too close to the White House fence, creating a brief flashpoint of anger in an otherwise peaceful demonstration.

The White House protest, which involved hundreds of people, quickly dissipated and the demonstrators were replaced by tourists taking photos of themselves with camera phones.

Don Armstrong, a veteran who served in Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan from 1993 to 2006, said he drove to the protest from his home in West Virginia because he worries the government shutdown will soon affect the benefits and disability payments he relies on to feed his family.

"In a war, there's strategies," Armstrong told Reuters. "What they're doing is playing roulette with people's lives."

Sunday's rally started on the National Mall, which is home to U.S. war memorials and has been mainly closed to tourists since October 1 when Congress failed to agree to continue funding the federal government, closing down services deemed "non-essential."

The rally included speeches from Sarah Palin, a hero of the conservative Tea Party movement and former Republican governor of Alaska, and Ted Cruz, a freshman Republican senator who has crusaded against Obama's healthcare law.

Melissa Mather, who heard about the rally from patriot groups she supports, called the memorial closure "a slap in the face to all Americans" and said she thinks that President Barack Obama and all lawmakers should resign.

"I just want to take them all and shake them," said Mather, from Havre de Grace, Maryland.

While some Republican lawmakers and Tea Party groups have seized on the memorial shutdowns to make political arguments, Armstrong, who said he had debated whether he could afford to burn though a quarter-tank of gas to drive to the rally, said both parties in Congress and the White House were to blame.

"I'm not a Democrat or Republican or anything like that," he said. "I blame them all."

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told Congress last week that veterans' benefits would end on November 1 if the shutdown does not end soon.

The shutdown has also affected the Defense Department's ability to pay death benefits to the families of military personnel killed in action, but the Pentagon struck a deal with a private charity to make the $100,000 payments during the shutdown.

Obama was at the White House on Sunday as Senate leaders met on Capitol Hill to try to work out a deal that would allow for the reopening of government by increasing the U.S. government borrowing limit by a Thursday deadline and avoid a first ever U.S. debt default.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by David Brunnstrom)

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