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First Lady Michelle Obama welcomes military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations on Nov. 29, 2016.

First Lady Michelle Obama welcomes military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations on Nov. 29, 2016. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)

First Lady Michelle Obama welcomes military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations on Nov. 29, 2016.

First Lady Michelle Obama welcomes military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations on Nov. 29, 2016. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)

First Lady Michelle Obama helps a girl decorate a stocking at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations.

First Lady Michelle Obama helps a girl decorate a stocking 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)

A girl decorates a cookie at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations.

A girl decorates a cookie at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)

A girl grabs a candy cane at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations.

A girl grabs a candy cane at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)

A boy decorates a cookie at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations.

A boy decorates a cookie at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)

Volunteers help Ella Gatlin, the daughter of Army Lt. Col. Tim Gatlin, decorate a stocking at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations.

Volunteers help Ella Gatlin, the daughter of Army Lt. Col. Tim Gatlin, decorate a stocking at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. First Lady Michelle Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)

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.

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)

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.

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)

First Lady Michelle Obama chats with children as they pet first dogs Sunny and Bo at the White House on Nov. 29, 2016. Obama invited military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations.

First Lady Michelle Obama chats with children as they pet first dogs Sunny and Bo 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)

First Lady Michelle Obama welcomes military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations on Nov. 29, 2016. At left is veteran Hazel Bethel of Miami, who migrated from Trinidad in the 1970s and then joined the U.S. Army.

First Lady Michelle Obama welcomes military families to the White House to preview holiday decorations on Nov. 29, 2016. At left is veteran Hazel Bethel of Miami, who migrated from Trinidad in the 1970s and then joined the U.S. Army. (C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes)

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

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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