Back Service Personnel, First Lady Asks Nation

The New York Times

March 12, 2009, Fayetteville, NC –  Michelle Obama flew Thursday to Fort Bragg, where she hugged soldiers, comforted their spouses, read to their children and urged Americans to reach out to the wounded soldiers and military families in their communities.

“Service does not end with the person in the uniform,” Mrs. Obama, the first lady, told several dozen civic leaders here. “Military families bear a heavy burden — and they do not complain about it — but as a nation we need to find ways to lighten the load.”

The trip to North Carolina was Mrs. Obama’s first work trip outside of Washington, and she used it to focus attention on the challenges faced by soldiers and their families in this time of war. Supporting the military and their families is one of Mrs. Obama’s priorities.

Last week, she visited a women’s memorial exhibit at Arlington National Cemetery, where she thanked women for their military service, including Gen. Ann E. Dunwoody, the Army’s first woman to be a four-star general, and Alyce Dixon, a member of the only unit of black women to serve overseas during World War II.

“Servicewomen have long navigated the twists and turns of the women’s rights struggle to secure a more equal and fuller place in the United States military,” Mrs. Obama said.

At Fort Bragg, Mrs. Obama received a briefing from the wives of senior officers and from the base’s commanding general, who spoke via videoconference from Iraq.

She embraced and greeted cheering soldiers and civilians in a dining hall. She lunched with the spouses of more than 20 soldiers who wept at times as they recounted their struggles.

She read “The Cat in the Hat” to a dozen preschoolers and spent time with four toddlers who were making thank-you cards for wounded soldiers.

“She can really relate to how we feel,” said Maria Dove, the 33-year-old wife of a soldier on assignment in California, who listened to the first lady address the leaders of several dozen civic and charitable groups in a downtown arts center here.

But not all military families applauded Mrs. Obama’s visit.

Brian Wise, executive director of Military Families United, an advocacy group, dismissed the trip as “a photo op.”

The group has opposed the Obama administration’s decision to allow coffins of war dead to be photographed and has raised concerns about the administration’s decision to drop charges against the leading suspect in the bombing of the destroyer Cole, which was attacked in 2000.

Mr. Wise said his group had tried to reach out to the first lady’s office and received no response.

“It’s been a lot of promises; it’s been a lot of rhetoric,” Mr. Wise said of Mrs. Obama’s efforts. “But when it comes to reaching out to military family organizations, there’s been no response.”

Obama administration aides said the first lady had not received a letter that Mr. Wise said had been sent to her office. They also said that a representative of his group was invited to the White House recently and was briefed along with other military families by President Obama.

In her speech to civic leaders here, Mrs. Obama said that her husband planned to improve military housing, expand child care, raise military pay, expand job training for spouses and expand counseling for families coping with the stress of repeated deployments and war.

She also praised the community groups in Fayetteville for their support of military families. In November, community leaders organized a baby shower for about 1,000 recent mothers and mothers-to-be — all wives or partners of military men — in what was billed as the largest military shower ever.

Anthony G. Chavonne, the mayor of Fayetteville, presented the first lady with a framed photograph of a soldier leaning out of a bus window as he says goodbye to his wife and child. And Mr. Chavonne explained the town’s dedication to soldiers and their spouses and children.

“War is not a political word in Fayetteville,” he said. “War is where our friends and families go.”

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