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First Lady Marks 9/11 With Service to Veterans

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

MCLEAN, Va., Sept. 11, 2010 – First Lady Michelle Obama marked the ninth anniversary of 9/11 today with service to America’s veterans.

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First Lady Michelle Obama poses for a picture with volunteers helping with a community service project at the Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean, Va., Sept. 11, 2010. About 150 volunteers pitched in on renovation projects for the community's residents, who include World War II and Vietnam War veterans. The first lady is flanked by two of those residents. DoD photo by Elaine Wilson

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

The first lady pitched in alongside a group of about 150 volunteers, including veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, to help in renovating a loading dock for residents of the Vinson Hall Retirement Community here. About 95 percent of the community’s 180 residents are veterans, some with service dating back to World War II.

Mission Serve, a civilian-military initiative, helped to organize the community service project at the center in honor of the National Day of Service and Remembrance. Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, helped to launch this initiative a year ago with an aim to bring together civilian and military communities through service and volunteerism.

The volunteers, many of them college students from George Washington University, gave a resounding cheer when Obama arrived at the center, nestled in a tree-lined suburb of the nation’s capital. She greeted the volunteers, many with a big smile and a high five, before jumping in to work with them.

“We’re always honored when the first lady joins us,” said Ross Cohen, director of Mission Serve and an Afghanistan veteran. “It’s a profound statement to turn a tragedy into a force for good.”

Doing her part to serve, Obama grabbed a paint roller and began coating a brick wall of the loading dock with broad strokes of white paint. She chatted with another volunteer, unconcerned with the paint splattering white flecks on her black slacks and purple sneakers. She then moved on to paint pipes bright orange to make them more visible.

The first lady climbed a ladder to reach closer to the ceiling while a volunteer, Brian Hawthorne, held the ladder still. “Use two hands,” another volunteer called out to him. He laughed and gripped tighter.

Hawthorne is a two-time Iraq war veteran and Army reservist with the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion in College Park, Md. He’s also a graduate student at George Washington University, and helped to coordinate the participation of a group of GWU student volunteers.

“It’s great to see the collaboration between veterans and nonveterans here,” said Hawthorne, a combat medic and civil affairs team sergeant.

While painting, Obama asked Hawthorne about his service, he said, and about other community service projects his student organization is involved in. “We’re really excited to have her here,” he said.

Fellow GWU student Scott Disney agreed. “It’s pretty awesome she’s here,” he said. “I never imagined she was coming when I was told about this project.” Disney also is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008.

Just behind the first lady, Marie Tillman, the widow of Patrick Tillman, an Army Ranger who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004, freshened up a faded-out wall with white paint. Tillman is the founder of the Pat Tillman foundation, which provides educational resources for veterans.

“It’s wonderful that we can make Sept. 11 into a service day,” she said. “And having the first lady here brings a lot to this effort.”

The first lady reluctantly relinquished her paint brush after speaking with several volunteers. Before heading out, she moved to a shaded area under a pine tree to chat with some of the community’s residents, including Navy veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Verner Utke-Ramsing said he was thrilled to meet the first lady. The 91-year-old served from 1941 to 1960, having commanded a submarine and a destroyer during his service. He also served in World War II and was part of the Battle of Midway, he said.

Ramsing praised the volunteers who were pitching in to help his community’s residents, particularly the veterans of the current wars. “They’re doing a wonderful job,” he said of the nation’s servicemembers. “I’m so very proud of our young people.”

He also marveled at today’s project. “It’s beautiful -- veterans helping veterans,” he said.

In a statement issued yesterday, the first lady said the spirit of selflessness and service in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy is what inspired the first National Day of Service and Remembrance last year.

“On this day all Americans can honor the brave men and women who lost and risked their lives by serving others in their community,” she wrote in the statement. “On the anniversary of this tragic day in our history, I hope you will join me in honoring all those who put the needs of others before their own by serving in your community.”


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Related Sites:
Special Report: Remembering 9/11
Photo Essay

Related Articles:
First Lady Urges ‘National Day of Service’

Click photo for screen-resolution imageFirst Lady Michelle Obama high fives volunteers helping with a community service project at the Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean, Va., Sept. 11, 2010. About 150 volunteers, including active duty troops and veterans, pitched in on renovation projects at the center in honor of the National Day of Service and Remembrance. DoD photo by Elaine Wilson  
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