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Visiting Michelle Obama praises Minnesota’s community programs for military families

“This state is one of the models because of so many of the things you all are doing” to serve military families, the first lady said.

First lady Michelle Obama was welcomed to the Twin Cities by military families as well as Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Mark Dayton.

It wasn’t an average day on Friday for troops at the Twin Cities’ Air National Guard Base — or for Minnesota’s military families.

First lady Michelle Obama came here Friday to meet National Guard members and learn about community efforts to serve families with members in the armed forces.

She later attended a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis before heading back to Washington.

 The visit, part of the first lady’s Joining Forces Community Challenge, included a round-table discussion where Obama met with community leaders to learn about Minnesota’s “best practices” in serving the people that service members leave behind.

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“This state is one of the models because of so many of the things you all are doing,” Obama said to the table of participants. “And I want to make sure that the rest of the nation understands how you work as a state, how your organizations come together, the needs of our military families and how organizations can serve them.”

“So you’re doing me a favor,” she said. “You’re educating me, but you’re also educating the nation. So I do want you all to relax and to just tell your story.”

Last month, Obama and Jill Biden announced 20 finalists for the initiative, including three from Minnesota. She met with them and their families, as well as a number of community groups.

Shane Hudella, who founded an organization that helps the children of military families play hockey, started the discussion. “Mrs. Obama, you picked the right state to visit,” he joked, drawing laughs from the attendees.

Hudella’s group has donated more than $500,000 to military families since it began in 2009, and it provides equipment and financial assistance for children who want to play the sport.

Herbert Moore, who serves in the Navy, said his children could finally play hockey with the help of Defending the Blue Line, Hudella’s group. Moore met the first lady on the tarmac, and sat in a picnic area after Obama had left watching his children play.

“It’s a great cause, and I couldn’t say enough about it, he said. “It made those two little guys’ … dreams come true.”

Natasha Moore, the six-tour serviceman’s wife, said she appreciates that the first lady came to Minnesota to meet military families. She said the visit made her feel more validated.

“I feel more appreciated just in general for what I do and the sacrifices my family has made,” she said. “It makes it feel more worth it.”

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Others at the discussion represented groups that help military families care for their lawns and remove snow, serve steak dinners and maintain a free service center for active-duty military personnel and their families at the airport.

While Obama was light and cheerful, the discussion at times got emotional.

Tracy Clark, a “gold star mother” who lost her son to a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan, choked up as she read a letter her son wrote before he was deployed.

After the press were ushered out of the room, Clark made two requests of the first lady: that “gold star” license plates be better displayed at the Department of Motor Vehicles and that military family members keep their status when visiting a base, even if the person in the military was killed.

Clark said it was wonderful to speak with the first lady: “She was gracious, and she didn’t make you nervous.”

Clark and Herbert Moore said the event — and the first lady’s attention — are important because they shed light on the struggles military families face.

“A lot of times, America just doesn’t understand the struggles and … we take it for granted because you all handle and shoulder the burden so well,” Obama said. “But it’s time for people to really understand what military families and our military kids go through.”  

For Clark, the meeting was also about her son, Ryane.

“People need to remember him,” she said. “I could not have asked for a better kid.”