Local Politics

Military families share concerns with first lady

Posted March 11, 2009 4:36 p.m. EDT
Updated March 12, 2009 11:29 p.m. EDT

— During a Thursday visit to Fort Bragg and Fayetteville, Michelle Obama started building a network of Army spouses and relatives to keep her informed about the needs of military families.

The first lady said she shares her husband's desire to raise military pay and improve housing, health care and child care options for members of the armed services and veterans.

"These are the issues that soldiers and their families have discussed with me over the last couple of years," Obama said in an afternoon speech to Fayetteville-area community groups that provide support to soldiers and their families.

"Military families bear a very heavy burden, and they do it without complaint," she said. "But as a nation, we need to find ways to lighten their load."

She also lauded Fayetteville for its efforts to reach out to military families.

"You have found ways to help strengthen families under great stress. You've found ways to make life fun for children who wake up and go to sleep worried about their moms and dads," she said. "Fayetteville clearly does watch over those who watch over us."

Earlier in the day, Obama toured the headquarters of the XVIII Airborne Corps, getting a briefing on everything from the history of Fort Bragg to the types of schools and military housing on post. She also had a private lunch at the Iron Mike dining facility with 20 military family members and five Fort Bragg volunteers.

"It was just terrific. I mean, my knees are still trembling," said Freddie Williams, whose husband is stationed at Fort Bragg. "She's a down-to-earth, beautiful person. She's just a God-blessed person sent to us, and it was an honor to shake my president's wife's hand."

During an afternoon stop at the Prager Child Development Center, one of five child-care facilities on post, Obama read “The Cat in the Hat” to a dozen preschoolers. She spent about 20 minutes with them, engaging the 3- to 5-year-olds with questions.

“It was like she was reading to her children,” said Mattie White, a lead education technician at the center. “It was exciting; it was a thrill. It was something I will never forget.”

Before her speech to community groups at the Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County, Fayetteville Mayor Tony Chavonne presented her with a framed photograph taken by Fayetteville Observer photographer Andrew Craft depicting a deployed soldier saying goodbye.

"I think she recognizes the uniqueness of this community at this special time in our country's history,” Chavonne said.

The afternoon meeting took place at the arts council's Hay Street headquarters, and some residents said Obama's visit demonstrates the success of downtown redevelopment. A red-light district in the 1970s and 1980s, Hay Street is now home to stylish condominiums and trendy boutiques and cafes.

"I think we have a wonderful downtown here in Fayetteville," resident Whitney Peters said. "It's happening, busy, fun (and) unique."

The events marked the first time Obama has visited North Carolina as first lady, but it was her third stop in Fayetteville in the past year. Last year, she made numerous visits to North Carolina during her husband's presidential campaign.

The plight of military families was one of the issues the first lady focused on while on the campaign trail. She held a number of roundtable discussions on the matter and said she felt they provided spouses with opportunities to tell their stories.

At a forum in October, she spoke to military families about challenges military families face when a family member is deployed.

On Thursday, she learned Fort Bragg is making improvements to ease the strain on families, including building three more child-care facilities and at least four new schools and youth centers. The Army also plans to spend more than $560 million on family housing on post over the next 10 years.

Spouses of Fort Bragg soldiers also expressed concern about finding jobs outside the military.

It's unclear whether Obama will be able to do anything about the concerns, but her spokeswoman said the purpose of the visit was to build a network of people who can speak to her about what military families need.

The Fort Bragg trip comes after a trip last week to Arlington National Cemetery, where she told women in the military that the nation must do all that it can to support military families.

Speaking at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Center, Obama said the burden of military service falls not just on the person in uniform, but on the service member's entire family.