First lady reaches out to Minnesota, military families

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 17, 2012 - 6:48 AM

The first lady hosted a roundtable of Minnesota military families, then spoke at a Democratic fundraiser.

First Lady Michelle Obama came to Minnesota on Friday to meet with military family members and community leaders and to learn how the state supports its military families. In some cases she got a candid assessment about what more needs to be done.

"You are doing me a favor educating me and educating the nation," Obama told representatives from four Minnesota-based organizations that support the military. "A lot of times America just doesn't understand the struggles. We take it for granted because you all handle and shoulder the burden so well."

Arriving in the Twin Cities, Obama was greeted by children and parents from one of the organizations, Defending the Blue Line, which works to ensure that children of military families can play hockey. She worked the line of kids, many wearing hockey jerseys, and some of their parents, wearing their military uniforms.

Youngsters Megan Soukup and Joseph Hudella, both part of the hockey program, met her at the stairway of her plane and the three walked, hand-in-hand, to greet the other families, where she hugged many of the kids and parents.

Obama came to the Twin Cities as part of her Joining Forces initiative, a program designed to recognize the work of communities helping support military families.

"It's time for people to understand what military families and our military kids go through," she said. "It's not easy doing what you do."

The other Minnesota groups in the round table included Serving Our Troops, which serves meals to service members and family during deployments; the Armed Forces Service Center, which provides services to troops in transit at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport; and GreenCare for Troops, which provides lawn care and snow removal free to families in the military.

"One small act of kindness helps keep them going with their daily struggles," said Joy Westenberg, who has managed GreenCare for Troops for more than five years.

Defending the Blue Line was started in 2009 by Shane Hudella, a first sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard. The organization has donated more than $500,000 to various athletic organizations across the United States.

"This year has been a struggle for us," said Melissa Soukup, whose husband has been deployed this year with the Minnesota National Guard. When he came home on leave, the organization was able to secure New Year's Eve tickets to a Minnesota Wild game for the family.

Debra Cain, executive director of the Armed Forces Service Center, said similar programs have been started across the country, including in Syracuse, Miami, Detroit and Fort Sill, Okla. That will continue even as the nation sees itself winding down from fighting two wars.

"We are the port in the storm," Cain said.

Obama also met privately with the groups. During that time, Tracy Clark, whose son, Ryane, was killed in Afghanistan, said she spoke openly about the isolation her family has felt, even while wearing the Gold Star emblem, symbol of a fallen soldier.

"People don't know what we are," she said after meeting with Obama. "They see my Gold Star pin and they have no clue. We have Gold Star license plates. One guy wanted to know how he could get a Gold Star license plate. My husband told him, 'Send your kid over to Afghanistan and have him killed,' He walked away in tears. We want people to know our kids are not safe over there."

The roundtable was the first of two scheduled stops in the Twin Cities. Afterward the first lady was to speak at a Democratic National Committee fundraising event at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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