First lady visits Minnesota to support service members, familiesby Rupa Shenoy, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — First lady Michelle Obama offered support for military families in her first visit to the Minnesota as first lady. Obama visited the state Friday to attend a fundraiser and meet with National Guard members and their families.
The only public event on the first lady's schedule was a roundtable discussion, where she learned about the many ways organizations in Minnesota help military members and their families. Nine people sat down with Obama as dozens of photographers, reporters and videographers looked on. Obama tried to get the roundtable members to relax amid the attention.
"It's like we try to set up an intimate experience. But it's kind of hard, right? I've heard and read so much about each of you and we're so proud," Obama said. "But I want to thank you all first of all for taking the time. I know that hanging out with the first lady is never just an easy thing to do."
Minnesota is model for its many organizations that work together to support military members and their families, Obama said. The first lady said she wanted to shine a spotlight on that work.
"A lot of times America doesn't understand the struggles..." she said. "We take it for granted because you all handle and shoulder the burden so well. But it's time for people to really understand what military families and our military kids go through.
Obama asked the panel members about their lives. Sitting to the first lady's left, Melissa Soukup said her husband, Terry, is on his second tour of duty in Kuwait. The couple have four children. The two older girls play hockey, Soukup said.
"And this year would've been a struggle for us. Not only financially, but just the time it takes to, you know, size the kids, outfit the kids, figure out what they get, figure out what stick to get," Soukup said. "That was my husband's job."
Help from the group Defending the Blue Line made it possible for her girls to play hockey this year, Soukup said.
Nicole Lovald told Obama that meals set up by the organization Serving Our Troops helped her family keep in touch.
Serving Our Troops sets up steak dinners for families in Minnesota and teleconferences with their military member abroad, so they can have a meal together. Lovald said she first used the service when her husband was deployed to Kosovo and their son, now five, had just been born.
"And then he was also in Iraq when my son was two-years old," Lovald said. "I got to do the "terrible two's" by myself while he was gone."
"Where's the medal for that?" Obama said.
Obama also heard from the manager of GreenCare for Troops, a group that organizes volunteers to cut the lawns of military families. They recently expanded their service to also clear snow. The director of the Armed Forces Service Center told the first lady that a staff of volunteers keeps a lounge open daily, at all hours, for any military members, their families, or veterans who might want to come in.
Tracy Clark told Obama her son, Ryan, was killed in Afghanistan two years ago. His fellow soldiers told Clark that her son always carried the heaviest equipment and did the hardest work. Clark said she asked her community to make cookies for Ryan's funeral.
"We asked for a thousand cookies for his funeral. We got almost 17,000 cookies from the community. It was chocolate chip cookies without nuts, because that was his favorite," Clark said.
Clark read the first lady a letter Ryan had written before he deployed.
"I say bye for now. When I return, everything will be different, which is not a bad thing. I will miss you all.
Clark struggles to go on and whispers for a moment with Obama.
"Do not worry about me, but keep me in your prayers. We will meet again. Love, Ryan."
Obama spent more than 45 minutes with the roundtable members, much of it away from the media so they could speak more candidly. She later attended a private fundraiser for her husband President Barack Obama's campaign at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Donors paid between $250 and $10,000 to attend.