Saturday, August 01, 2009

Returning to Her Signature Issue

Just over a month ago, we mused about First Lady Michelle Obama's commitment to one of her signature issues--the plight of military families.

Despite her pledge to make it a personal priority, Mrs. Obama's efforts for the families of armed forces members have been hit-or-miss since Inauguration Day. There was a heavily-publicized trip to Fort Bragg, North Carolina in March and an effort to stuff backpacks for military kids at Fort McNair in July. Beyond that....well.....

However, the First Lady did find a little time for her priority issue on Friday, just prior to the Obama's planned vacation on Martha's Vineyard. Mrs. Obama paid a visit to Naval Station Norfolk, welcoming home the crews of the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower and the hospital ship USNS Comfort. Both vessels had just returned from deployments.

In her remarks, Mrs. Obama pledged continued support for military families and the issues they face:

"I will use every ounce of my power in this position to highlight the sacrifices that you make, and to rally the country around you," she said. "It won't stop today."


"..with military husbands and wives scattered among the white-clad sailors, she offered words of encouragement and advice to those who deal with the stresses on the home front.

Calling military spouses "the quiet heroes who represent the best in our country," she urged the civilian population to take on assignments big and small to help them.

Accountants and lawyers can offer help free of charge. Employers can help spouses keep or get a job.

Neighbors can offer to carpool, baby-sit or simply listen, she said.

Providing that support "requires more than good government," she said. "It requires active citizens."

We can't disagree with Mrs. Obama's request. But it is worth noting that many of the support mechanisms she referred to are already in place. Fact is, many communities are tremendously supportive of their local military populations. Scores of businesses offer military discounts; there are programs to help spouses find work and many installations offer "night out" programs for the husbands and wives of deployed personnel.

Can neighborhoods and communities do more? Of course, but to hear the First Lady talk, military families are receiving little support right now, and that simply isn't true.

Something else about Mrs. Obama's Norfolk appearance also struck us as a bit odd. She was quick to point out the presence of the Comfort, the massive hospital ship that had just completed a four-month humanitarian mission to the Caribbean and South America. Providing free medical care to the region's poor, the Comfort is an exceptional ambassador for both the Defense Department and the U.S. as a whole.

But the hospital vessel is home-ported in Baltimore, and (for this mission) less than 60 of its crew were drawn from the Portsmouth Naval Hospital, located near the Norfolk navy base. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that Comfort returned on the same day as the USS Eisenhower (and was available to participate in the homecoming ceremony), but both the Navy (and Mrs. Obama) seemed anxious to highlight the "soft power" capabilities of the hospital ship.

We commend the president's wife for taking an active interest in matters affecting military families. But, if she truly wants to make it a priority issue, there is more than she can do by doing more than speeches and photo ops, and "drilling down" into problems facing members of the armed forces and their families.

Consider the housing issue. Over the past decade, DoD has been making deals with private developers to upgrade and expand military housing areas. Some of these projects have been notable successes, but others have wound up in bankruptcy, creating acute housing shortages at some bases.

We're written at length about one failed development at Moody AFB near Valdosta, Georgia. Launched almost four years ago, the project was supposed to deliver more than 600 new housing units for the base population, which has expanded rapidly in recent years. But the development firm went belly up, leaving mountains of debt and only four completed houses. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 new airmen are arriving at the base and they're finding it difficult to secure living quarters for their families.

For her next "military" trip, Mrs. Obama might consider a visit to Moody. She might also consider a conversation with Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, who has been at the forefront of efforts to resolve the problem. Trying to cut through layers of red tape and fixing the problem at Moody won't be as easy as giving a speech at Norfolk (and there won't be any flattering photo ops), but it would allow the First Lady to tackle a genuine military concern and make a difference.

We should also point out that Moody isn't the only base with privatized housing woes. Projects in Florida, Arkansas and Missouri (to name a few) are also in trouble, making it more difficult for military families to find a place to live. Of course, taking on that issue would require more time and effort, and that could be a problem. Our friend Ed Rasimus reminds us that Mrs. Obama has pledged to work only two-and-a-half days a week, and she won't be back on the job until after the family vacation in August.

At least she'll be rested for that next military photo op.
ADDENDUM: Some would argue that it's not the job of a First Lady to work specific military issues. After all, that's why we have a SecDef and the Pentagon's massive bureaucracy. But lest we forget, Mrs. Obama selected the military family issue as her own, and it's not unreasonable to expect more than just speeches and photo sessions.

And, history shows us that a president wife can sometimes have a powerful impact on the military. The legendary Tuskegee Airmen owe their existence, in part, to Eleanor Roosevelt. When the Army Air Corps balked at allowing African-Americans to serve as pilots, Mrs. Roosevelt lobbied her husband. The rest, as they say, is history.

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