Michelle Obama talks to Minnesota military families

Published 7:55 am Sunday, March 18, 2012

ST. PAUL — Michelle Obama praised Minnesota and its efforts to help military families during a stop at the state’s Air National Guard base on Friday.

During her visit, the first lady held a round table discussion with local military family members and representatives of support groups. The event was part of her Joining Forces initiative, which aims to connect and promote support and resource groups for military families.

Mrs. Obama called Minnesota “a model” when it comes to providing resources and support to military families.

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“I want to make sure that the rest of the nation understands how you work as a state, how your organizations come together, the needs of our military families and how organizations can serve them,” Obama said.

Shane Hudella, a sergeant with the Minnesota Army National Guard, told Mrs. Obama that the state’s Beyond the Yellow Ribbon network of military support groups could serve as a template for the country.

“You picked the right state to visit,” Hudella said. “In Minnesota we have done what your Joining Forces initiative has asked America to do.”

Hudella, founder of Defending the Blue Line, a group that helps children of military families play hockey, was one of eight local military family members and support group representatives invited to the discussion. Others included the Armed Forces Services Center, an “all free” lounge at the Minneapolis/St. Paul international airport; Project Evergreen’s GreenCare for Troops, a lawn care services provider and Serving Our Troops, which provides steak dinners to troops and their families.

The groups advised the first lady on how to replicate their work on a larger scale. Pat Harris, a former St. Paul City Councilman and a founder of Serving Our Troops, said the first lady didn’t say which specific ideas she would take with her. But he said she was “clearly genuine” about gathering information.

Some at the table also shared personal concerns and suggestions with Mrs. Obama.

Tracy Clark, whose son Ryan Clark was killed at age 22 in Afghanistan while serving in the Army in 2010, said she wanted to be able to feel at home on military bases. She said she has not been allowed to shop at base stores or use other resources.

“They tell us that we are military family for life and when I go on base, I don’t feel like a military (family member). I can’t do anything on that base, because I don’t have a military ID,” said Clark, who lives in New London. “If they’re gonna call us military families, than you need to treat us like military families.”

Clark said that parents of service members, unlike dependents, are not given military IDs. She said the first lady was aware of the concern.

“She knows about this request, and it keeps getting put off, but she said ‘You know what? We will get that done,”’ Clark said.

Clark also said she mentioned that she would like Gold Star license plates, which denote parents of soldiers killed, to be displayed at DMVs so the public is aware of what it represents.

Defending the Blue Line, Project Evergreen’s GreenCare for Troops, and the Armed Forces Services center were all finalists in a Joining Forces community contest. Mrs. Obama told them at the round table that they were invited to the White House on April 11 for a final round of the contest.

Mrs. Obama was also scheduled to appear at a fundraiser Friday evening at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.