First Lady Michelle Obama saw close-up the pain and suffering of military families when she visited Fort Hood with President Obama on Tuesday, paying tribute to the 13 people killed in a shooting spree, allegedly by an Army psychiatrist. Mrs. Obama, who has embraced helping military families as one of her causes, on Wednesday -- Veterans Day -- said she was in awe of what the families of soldiers endure.
Mrs. Obama and her husband joined Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill, at Arlington National Cemetery for Veterans Day ceremonies, where the president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Then the first couple made a surprise visit to a part of the cemetery, Section 60, where soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. They walked between tombstones for about 10 minutes; the president greeted mourners at grave sites. (Mrs. Obama wore a teal outfit, a contrast to the dark colors the president, the Bidens and others at the ceremony wore.)
Earlier, Mrs. Obama and the president hosted a group of veterans at the White House for breakfast, and the Bidens served lunch at their northwest Washington home to another group of vets.
Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden met up again in the afternoon, at George Washington University, to help kick off "Mission Serve," an effort to organize volunteers -- civilians and active and retired military -- to assist members of the military, veterans and their families. The project is an undertaking of ServiceNation, a non-profit group bankrolled in part by Target and Bank of America.
Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State and Gen. Colin Powell, was on hand to receive a service award. The Powells have long been boosters of volunteerism.
You may recall that Mrs. Obama has a bit of history with George Washington University. She told students a few months ago she would speak at graduation ceremonies there if the students, faculty and staff completed 100,000 hours of community service.
If this is blackmail, it's working. Mrs. Obama told the group at GWU that, so far, the university community has tallied 19,000 hours of service. "So if you all keep it up, maybe I'll see you in May."
Earlier this year, Mrs. Obama and Dr. Biden taped a public service announcement -- shown at Game 1 of the World Series -- calling on Americans to help veterans. Veterans Day was an obvious occasion for another event on the twin themes of community service and aiding the U.S. military, now fighting two wars.
Boosting community service is an Obama White House goal. On April 21 the president was joined by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and former President Clinton at the White House, where he signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act.
The measure expands the AmeriCorps service program to create five new national programs: a Veterans Corps to help veterans and active duty military; an Education Corps; a Healthy Futures Corps; a Clean Energy Service Corps; and an Opportunity Corps, to help low-income individuals.
Mrs. Obama touched on the Veterans Corps in her speech, putting tremendous emphasis on the "sense of awe -- true awe" that she has about the burdens faced by military families:
"I'm in awe of sacrifices they make -- if you think about it, a tiny fraction of our population bearing the burden of eight years of war serving tour after tour of duty. . . . I'm in awe of the men and women that I meet who have been wounded. . . . And I'm in awe of the military families that I meet: spouses who play the role of both parents."
The president confronted the stark reality of the United States being at war when he paid tribute last month to 18 Americans killed in Afghanistan by witnessing the arrival of their bodies at Dover Air Force Base.
In his speech at Fort Hood, Obama acknowledged that the 13 people being honored were killed not in Iraq, Afghanistan, or any conflict zone. "They were killed here, on American soil, in the heart of this great American community. It is this fact that makes the tragedy even more painful and even more incomprehensible," he said.
The Fort Hood memorial service was also Mrs. Obama's turn at with dealing with newly grieving families. In her speech at GW, she talked about a soldier, Amber Bahr, who rushed in to rescue others during the horrible minutes of the massacre, even though she was shot in the back. And she mentioned meeting Daniel DeCrow, whose son, Justin, was slain at Fort Hood.
In contrast to the speech her husband delivered just the day before -- confronting the disturbing reality of the deaths -- she talked only about the courage and sacrifice of these soldiers, not mentioning that they were slain by an assassin on a U.S. Army post.
For Mrs. Obama, who dearly does not want to be controversial, that was an abundance of caution.