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Family Matters Blog: First Lady Turns Tragedy Into Force for Good

By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2010 – Sept. 11, 2001, will forever be remembered as a day of tragedy for America.

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First Lady Michelle Obama visits with World War II veterans at the Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean, Va., Sept. 11, 2010. The first lady helped renovate a loading dock for the community's residents to mark the National Day of Service and Remembrance. DoD photo by Elaine Wilson

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

The terrorist attacks on U.S. soil robbed nearly 3,000 innocent Americans of their lives and forged the path for two wars. Thousands of servicemembers since have died fighting to prevent future attacks on our country.

Some choose to mark the 9/11 anniversary with ceremony and taking time to reflect back on that fateful day.

Others choose to mark the day with service to others as a way of turning a senseless tragedy into a force for good. I was fortunate this year to see this selfless service in action.

First Lady Michelle Obama pitched in alongside a group of about 150 volunteers, including veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, to help renovate a loading dock for residents of the Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean, Va. About 95 percent of the community's 180 residents are veterans, some with service dating back to World War II.

I wrote about the event for American Forces Press Service in "First Lady Marks 9/11 With Service to Veterans."

Mission Serve, a civilian-military organization, organized the renovation project in honor of the 2nd annual National Day of Service and Remembrance. Mrs. Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, helped to launch Mission Serve last year aiming to bring together civilian and military communities through service and volunteerism.

Mrs. Obama urged Americans to spend the 9/11 anniversary giving service in a statement released Friday by the White House. AFPS reprinted the statement in the article, "First Lady Urges 'National Day of Service'."

I watched as the ever-stylish first lady grabbed a paint roller and began coating a brick wall of the loading dock with white paint, all with the ease of a seasoned painter. As Mrs. Obama chatted with fellow volunteers, many of them college students, she was completely unconcerned with the paint splattering white flecks on her black slacks and purple "kicks."

Mrs. Obama then climbed a ladder to paint some pipes near the ceiling a vivid orange while Brian Hawthorne held the ladder still. "Use two hands," another volunteer called 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," he said.

The first lady reluctantly relinquished her paint brush after speaking with several volunteers. She then moved on to a shaded area under a pine tree to chat with some of the community's residents, including veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the Battle of Midway in the Pacific during World War II.

Mrs. Obama greeted each veteran with a warm smile and handshake, and after speaking with each of them, invited them all to come to the White House for a special tour.

I talked with retired Navy Cmdr. Verner Utke-Ramsing about his impressions of the day. The spry 91-year-old served from 1941 to 1960, commanding a submarine and a destroyer, and was part of the Battle of Midway.

Cmdr. Utke-Ramsing spoke highly of the first lady, but was especially complimentary of the young veterans taking time to help their older counterparts.

"It's beautiful – veterans helping veterans," he said.

I thought so too.

Earlier in the day, my colleague Lisa Daniel attended a 9/11 ceremony that served as a tribute to the 184 people who died in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all spoke at the event.

Daniel and another colleague, Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Carden, wrote about our leaders' remarks in their  AFPS articles, "Obama: Honor 9/11 Victims by Staying True to U.S. Values" and "Gates, Mullen Reflect on Troop Sacrifices Since 9/11."

Daniel also spoke to some families who lost loved ones in the Pentagon attack and wrote about their reflections of that day and their lives since in her touching AFPS article, "Families at Pentagon Memorial Reflect on Lost Loved Ones."

Also, please take a moment to check out the AFPS Web special report "Remembering Sept. 11, 2001: We Will Never Forget," for remembrance stories, photos and videos from the Defense Department and its military services.

To comment on this blog, please visit the Family Matters blog.

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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 servicemembers and veterans, pitched in on renovations projects at the center on the 2nd Annual National Day of Service and Remembrance. DoD photo by Elaine Wilson  
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