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First Lady Michelle Obama hosts military families to kick off holiday season

First Lady Michelle Obama admires a boy's decorating of a cookie at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations.

C.J. LIN/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 29, 2016

WASHINGTON — First Lady Michelle Obama has made a tradition out of hosting military families at the White House during the holiday season.

On Tuesday, there was a sense of finality when she addressed about 100 servicemembers, veterans and their spouses and children in the East Room, kicking off the holiday season as first lady for the last time.

“To all the military families, those of you here today and all those around the world, I want to once again honor you for your service, your sacrifice and your love of this nation,” Obama said. “It’s a love my family shares along with you. It’s been such a complete pleasure to support you in this time.”

The annual event is part of Joining Forces, an initiative the first lady and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, started in April 2011 to support servicemembers, veterans and their families with education, employment and health resources.

Earlier this month, the White House credited Joining Forces with having led to the hiring or training of 1.4 million veterans and their spouses.

One hundred colleges have signed up for a program under the initiative that trains future educators on the unique needs of military children, and Biden pushed for the launch of a Department of Veterans Affairs website that compares the cost of different colleges for servicemembers and veterans using GI Bill benefits.

Thirty-five communities have signed onto another program under Joining Forces to help reduce veteran homelessness in their areas.

A campaign was also started to raise awareness for mental health issues affecting the military community, and the Association of American Medical Colleges agreed to host weeklong training for health care providers focused on military and veteran health issues.

It’s uncertain whether Joining Forces will continue during the administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

In statements during the presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton said she had plans to build on Joining Forces. She wanted to start an effort to get more veterans hired by using tax credits, entrepreneurship programs and transition assistance.

Trump has not mentioned his plans for Joining Forces, but he has said repeatedly that veterans issues would be a priority in his administration. The only nonpolicy initiative that the Trumps have announced so far is Melania Trump’s stand against cyberbullying.

At Tuesday’s event, Army veteran Hazel Bethel, who introduced the first lady, took a moment to say what the Obama administration has meant for her.

Bethel, now living in Miami, migrated from Trinidad in the 1970s and then joined the Army. She said back then it was “all about the American Dream.”

“I have a daughter and son, and I instilled in them that any child can become a president in the United States,” Bethel said. “I was so overwhelmed when Mr. Barack Obama became the first African-American president. It proved me right.”

Obama said Tuesday that her family made a point to make Americans “of all backgrounds and walks of life feel comfortable and welcome in our nation’s house,” especially during the holidays.

“Having you be the first that see the decorations, this has been one of our favorite White House traditions,” Obama told the crowd. “Our military families remind us of what matters.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Army Lt. Col. Tim Gatlin (right), his wife, Jeanine, and daughters Ella and Brayden during a visit to the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed military families to the White House to preview this year's holiday decorations.
C.J. LIN/STARS AND STRIPES

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