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Click photo for screen-resolution imageBy Donna Miles, American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 6, 2008 – President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates paid tribute today to about 1,100 military spouses who gathered for a Military Spouse Day celebration at the White House, where Bush promised to continue pushing for more benefits for military families.

Following a tradition President Ronald Reagan established when he declared the first Military Spouses Day in 1984, Bush said he believes “we need to recognize military spouses every day.”

“One way we can repay the service of our spouses is by making the burdens of military life a little easier,” he told the group, who enjoyed breakfast at red-and-white-checkered tables dotting the White House’s South Lawn.

Bush noted that he signed a change to the Family and Medical Leave Act into law this year, drawing applause from the group. The law allows a spouse, parent, child or next of kin to take up to 26 weeks of leave from work to care for a seriously injured or ill servicemember undergoing therapy or treatment.

Referring to last week’s revelations of poor housing conditions at Fort Bragg, N.C., Bush promised to do better. “When we find substandard housing, we'll take care of it,” he told the spouses.

Bush said he’s hoping Congress moves quickly to pass legislation he sent to Capitol Hill to ease some of the burdens military families face. These initiatives, announced during Bush’s State of the Union address in January, would expand access to child care, create new authorities to appoint qualified spouses into civil service jobs, and provide educational opportunities and job training for our military spouses.

But the initiative that drew the most cheers from the crowd would amend the Montgomery GI Bill to allow troops to transfer their unused education benefits to their spouses or children.

“This legislation is moving. I hope to be able to sign it as quickly as possible,” the president told the spouses. “It is the absolute right thing to do. It should send a clear message that we care for you, we respect you, and we love you.”

Bush thanked military spouses who stand behind their loved ones serving the country during wartime. “Whether you signed up for military life at the recruiting station or at the altar rail, each person -- each person's a volunteer,” he said. “And when you married your soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or Coast Guardsman, you became more than just part of a family. You became part of our nation's military family.”

The life of a military family is no easy calling, the president said. It involves frequent moves, living far from extended families, and saying goodbye to a spouse who goes off to serve on the front lines in the battle to secure the United States and spread freedom.

“Being left behind when a loved one goes to war has got to be one of the hardest jobs in the United States military,” Bush said, noting the challenges of holding down the home front while praying for a loved one’s safe return.

“In carrying out the burdens, you're serving our country, and it’s noble service, and it's necessary service,” he said. “The United States of America owes you a huge debt of gratitude. And so, on behalf of our people, thank you for what you're doing.”

Bush said he’s impressed during his visits to military bases to see how military families take care of each other.

“What I found is that there's always a close-knit community, people who are sharing a special bond and people who take time to look out after people,” he said. “It's been an amazing experience to see the fabric of our military communities firsthand.”

Gates said he makes it a point during his visits to military facilities to meet with families of deployed troops, most recently last week at Fort Bliss, Texas. “I'm always tremendously impressed by your sacrifice, resilience and fortitude,” he said.

The secretary said he first heard of the idea of expanding the Montgomery GI Bill to benefit military families while meeting with Army spouses at Fort Hood, Texas, and that Bush quickly announced the proposal.

“That's how much we respect what you have to say,” Gates told the group. He praised military families as the “power behind the power” who serve along with their loved ones and help them be successful.

“While our men and women in uniform may be called to pay the highest price, their families, and particularly their spouses, make a considerable sacrifice as well,” he told the group. “Thank you for all you do to make their service possible.”

Amanda Villiers, wife of Army Staff Sgt. Stan Villiers, called Bush’s and Gates’ messages to the spouses particularly meaningful after enduring her husband’s two deployments to Iraq.

“It’s nice to be here and see that we are a part of something bigger,” she said. “Our husbands are out there fighting, but we are holding down the home fronts. … It’s nice to have that recognized, … and to have the commander in chief say a personal ‘thank you’ to you.”

Alex Loudon, wife of Navy Command Master Chief Petty Officer Michael Dyer, said she was impressed by Bush’s sincerity and believes he has military families’ interests at heart. “I feel he genuinely cares about military families,” she said.

After just over three years as a Navy wife, Loudon said, she’s been “amazed at the way military families are able to stand, and stand strongly,” particularly during deployments.

“It’s much harder than I ever thought it would be,” she said. “The servicemember supports the family, but the family supports the servicemember, too. It’s a two-way commitment.”

Argero Straub, whose husband, Marine Corps 2nd Lt. John Straub, is attending his Officer Basic School at Quantico Marine Corps Base, Va., said it felt good having the nation’s leaders recognize military spouses.

“We do a lot supporting our husbands and what they do,” she said. “It’s nice to have someone take notice and know we are contributing, too.”

Laura Battle, wife of Marine Sgt. Christopher Battle, and Joann Quick, wife of Marine Staff Sgt. Timothy Quick, both well into their pregnancies, joined their friend Crystal Ottinger, wife of Marine Staff Sgt. James Ottinger, to reflect on the president’s message.

“It means a lot to see how he appreciates the families, as well as the men who are serving,” Battle said.

“And all the support the wives give, and how they support each other,” Quick added.

“All the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform could not be possible without the families,” agreed Janet Devinney, whose husband, Navy Cmdr. Edward Devinney, is slated to take command of USS Cole later this year. “Families are the unsung heroes. We don’t get the recognition or the medals or the awards. But what we do is important.”

Heather Lalor, wife of Coast Guard Lt. Michael Lalor, called it “very humbling” to be recognized at the White House and to be part of America’s extended military family.

“I’m thoroughly excited and quite honored,” she said. “It’s neat to be a part of it.”


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