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First Lady Advocates for Military Women, Families in Predecessor's Mold

John J. Kruzel, American Forces Press Service

ARLINGTON, Va., March 3, 2009 –

First lady Michelle Obama received a tip from a retired female Army general today: Keep modeling herself after her World War II-era predecessor, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Retired Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, speaking today at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial here, drew a comparison between Obama and her first lady forebear.

“From the very beginning, she has made servicewomen and their welfare a priority on which she is focusing,” Vaught said of Obama. “In doing this, she is following in the footsteps of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s WWII fame.”

Without Roosevelt’s steadfast advocacy, women -- including African-American women -- might not have been allowed to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, said Vaught, president of the Women’s Memorial Foundation.

The timing of today’s event, which brought together several dozen current and retired military women of various rank and branch, coincided with the first week of Women's History Month. It also comes as the current first lady seeks to extend her campaign focus on military families, according to White House officials.

Stepping into Roosevelt’s mold, Obama opened her remarks by accepting Vaught’s challenge to revive a bygone tradition: hosting women troops in the audience to the White House for tea, a luxury that gained Roosevelt popularity among female servicemembers.

Obama said women have been contributing to the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, citing their earliest antecedent Deborah Samson, who disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the 4th Massachusetts Regiment in 1782.

“Throughout our nation’s history women have played an important role in the military as well as in organizations supporting the military during times of conflict,” she said. “Our foremothers and our sisters today have joined our forefathers and our brothers today in securing our liberty and protecting our country.”

Echoing remarks President Barack Obama made last week at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., the first lady said service doesn’t end with the person wearing the uniform, adding that she’s been honored and deeply moved to meet military families in recent years.

“They are mothers and fathers who have lost their beloved children to war; they are husbands and wives keeping the families on track while their wives and husbands are deployed on duty,” she said. “They are grandparents, aunts and uncles, and sisters and brothers who are taking care of children while single moms or dads in uniform are away.”

Obama recognized members of the audience who blazed the trail for female servicemembers, including Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first female to receive the rank of four-star general; Coast Guard Vice Adm. Vivien Crea, the first woman to serve as a vice chief of a military branch; and Alyce Dixon, a 101-year-old former company clerk in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion during World War II.

Dunwoody praised the generations of women servicemembers who paved the way for her.

“As you go through the history of our early beginnings and recognize the generations of women who have gone before us, their dedication and commitment has opened the doors for women today,” she said.

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