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Michelle Obama, at Pentagon, honors armed forces and their families

First lady Michelle Obama has made a point of calling attention to the sacrifices of the armed forces and their families. She was at the Pentagon Friday to thank them. Should she do more?

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer / April 9, 2010

First lady Michelle Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates sing the National Anthem during a gathering at the Pentagon, Friday.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Washington

Michelle Obama is using the first lady’s bully pulpit to highlight the needs and concerns of military families, even if a major initiative has yet to emerge.

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Mrs. Obama appeared at the Pentagon Friday to honor members of the military and their families in what her office billed as her “16th visit” to the Defense Department – but her first across the river from the White House to the Pentagon itself.

“Our country has never asked so much, for so long, of our all-volunteer force,” Obama told a crowd of service members and their families. “The beauty is you never complain, at least not out loud,” she said to laughter. “You always step up and you always come through.”

In her first year as first lady, Obama put military families at the top of her priority list. With Jill Biden, whose son, Beau, is a member of the Delaware National Guard, she has tried to draw attention to the plight of families who have never in modern times had to endure a war as long as the ones in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has boosted funding for military family support programs by 3 percent, to $8.8 billion, including money for counseling, child care, youth programs, and career development for spouses, who typically move so often that it is hard for them to develop a profession.

Last Veterans Day, Michelle Obama announced a new military-oriented community service organization called Mission Serve, an offshoot of the public-service group ServiceNation. Mission Serve attempts to link war veterans returning to civilian life to opportunities within their communities. Many veterans and their families report difficulty in making the transition home, and veterans still experience high unemployment rates.

But Obama’s focus may be shifting. This year, she added childhood obesity as another top issue. Advocates for military families hope that won’t draw attention and resources from military families, but that military families will remain the focus in much the same way that reading was the primary cause of first lady Laura Bush.

At the event at the Pentagon Friday, Obama did not announce new initiatives. Instead, she thanked a large group of service members and their families, who lined some of the Pentagon’s long granite hallways in welcome.

But the words counted, advocates say, and they hope Obama will continue saying them.

“The use of the bully pulpit to go out to the world and say those things is very important,” says Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Family Association in Alexandria, Va. “We’re really happy.”

Still, notes Ms. Raezer, there has been no large, “overarching” initiative or single event to promote awareness of military families and their issues, raising the question of the depth of the administration’s commitment.

At the same time, Raezer points to the administration's recent conference on work-life flexibility, in which military families were invited to participate. That is another sign the administration is serious about helping military families, she says.

Such a campaign could promote in a larger way the notion that the US as a whole – not just government or the Defense Department – should reach out to the military and their families. “Of course, we’re always looking for more,” she says.

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