First lady shows support for veterans in NYC

First Lady Michelle Obama addresses the Veterans Affairs department, Oct. 20, 2009.
First Lady Michelle Obama addresses the Veterans Affairs department, Oct. 20, 2009. (Reuters/Larry Downing)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 28, 2009; 5:43 PM

NEW YORK -- At the center of an auditorium in the uppermost reaches of New York City was a throng of people, and at the center of the throng was Michelle Obama -- and on the outskirts of the throng was a ring of cellphones and cameras held high. Kenneth Slade, an Iraq war veteran, inched closer toward the first lady at Wednesday's event, ducked his face, raised his camera and clicked its shutter.

"Take a look at this and tell me what you see," he said proudly a few moments later, holding up his camera's viewing screen. Slade's face was in the foreground of the photo, grinning widely, with Obama in the background, turned sideways, shaking someone else's hand. Slade didn't mind at all that she wasn't posing with him.

"Me and the first lady," he said. "Tell me that's not clutch -- I only got one shot at it, and I nailed it. This is going on my wall. I'm blowin' it up, blowin' it up, blowin' it up."

About six hours before the first pitch of the World Series would be thrown at Yankee Stadium, Obama and Jill Biden, wife of the vice president, took part in Major League Baseball's new Welcome Back Veterans campaign, being promoted during the championship series between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies.

They entered the auditorium at the James J. Peters VA Medical Center in the Bronx to a standing ovation from the audience of veterans, patients and hospital staffers.

"We owe [veterans] for what they've done for us," Obama said, speaking over the heads of the crowd to the television cameras. "Let's be more aware of these heroes in our midst."

Even on a big day for baseball fans, there was no question who dominated the room. The audience listened attentively to speeches by Bob DuPuy, president and chief operating officer of Major League Baseball, and Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, general partner of the Yankees and daughter of owner George Steinbrenner. The crowd applauded politely when Charlie Hayes, the third baseman on the beloved World Series champion Yankees team of 1996, was introduced.

Biden got a warm ovation, but she seemed to know she was out-starred, and she quickly turned it over to "my partner." As Obama approached the dais, the crowd burst to its feet, and here went the cameras, as high as arms could raise them, all pointed toward the stage, until everyone was shouted down by the photographers and television cameramen at the back of the room.

"Please sit," Obama said, standing in front of a Major League Baseball backdrop, an MLB logo over each shoulder. "You've done enough. You can sit."

Obama thanked Major League Baseball for a "phenomenal effort" in recognizing the contributions of veterans and said her husband's administration is dedicated to "guaranteeing the care [veterans] were promised and the benefits they have earned" -- a line that drew another standing ovation.

But it was after her speech, when she left the stage to shake hands and pose for pictures with audience members, that her personal magnetism came through.

"It's the spirit she has," said Johnnie Williams, a 61-year-old Bronx resident and Vietnam War veteran. "The first time I ever saw her, I guess a year or so ago, I heard her talking about helping out the veterans."

"I think she really cares about veterans," said Army Sgt. Nelson Garcia, 38, a Bronx resident who served two tours in Iraq, coming home injured both times. Obama's words, he said, "really mean something to me, especially when she talks about helping families. I have a family myself, and it's important to me they're taken care of."

Jeffrey James, a Bronx resident who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 and now works at the hospital, said he was determined to attend Wednesday's event, telling his boss he didn't care if his pay was docked.

"This was history in the making," James said. "I didn't get to attend the inauguration, so this is the next best thing for me. I had to be here."

Eventually, they whisked Obama and Biden away, out a door and down a hallway, for private visits with injured veterans, leaving the crowd to examine their cameras to make sure they got their shots.

"Hopefully her message gets across," said Slade, clutching his camera. He served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, suffering hearing loss and post-traumatic stress disorder after a rocket landed near him near the end of his tour. "A lot of us have suffered from serving our country, and she's someone who gets that."

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