FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — While President Barack Obama is working to shift U.S. troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, first lady Michelle Obama is focusing on the military families fighting their own battles at home.
Obama showed her appreciation for both soldiers and their families on Thursday during a visit to Fort Bragg and Fayetteville. The base is one of the largest in the world, and the city that abuts it recently was named the most military-friendly in the nation.
In making the trip, Obama is beginning to define her White House role. She has said the needs of military families will be one her top priorities.
"Military families bear a very heavy burden," Obama said. "They do it without complaint. But we as a nation need to find a way to lighten their load."
She suggested Fayetteville could be an example for the rest of the country, and encouraged people to look around them wherever they live to see if an active-duty or reserve soldier or their spouse who could use a hand.
"Fayetteville clearly does watch over those who watch over us," Obama said during a late-afternoon address at the Fayetteville Arts Council building. An audience of about 100 people included city council members and representatives of local businesses and civic groups that accommodate service members by organizing special events and offering discounts on products and services.
Obama saved her more substantive discussions for private meetings with military families behind closed doors.
President Barack Obama has said his administration will work to increase military pay, counseling and support for veterans, job training for spouses and to improve military housing.
The first lady arrived at Fort Bragg in the early afternoon for her first tour of the base.
At the Iron Mike dining hall, she hugged soldiers who were having lunch and posed for photos, then read "The Cat in the Hat" with expressive commentary at Prager Child Development Center for a dozen children, ages 3 to 5.
"What are you all dressed up for?" she asked a young girl with a pink bow in her hair. "You have a special guest or something?"
Obama got high marks from the center's staff, who described her as a good storyteller.
"It was like she was reading to her children," said Mattie White, one of the teachers. "It was exciting, it was a thrill. It was something I will never forget."
Obama also spent time with four toddlers who were making "thank you" cards for wounded soldiers. Pam Pitman, a program assistant in the class, sat next to Obama at the tiny table.
"I felt so comfortable, I was not nervous at all," Pitman said later.
At the Arts Center, Obama was in the heart of Fayetteville's downtown, on a gentrifying Hay Street, a block or two from the tracks on which troop trains ran during both world wars.
Jean Moore, in the audience, said her grandfather used to run Huske Hardware House, just up Hay Street, and would go to meet the trains and bring returning soldiers back to his store. Sometimes he took them home for a meal.
It's the sort of hospitality people of Fayetteville have extended to soldiers since Camp Bragg was founded in 1918. Now it manifests as "Welcome Home" signs on business marquees when troops rotate back from combat, or reduced prices on used cars, or in such events as Boots and Booties, last year's baby shower for 800 expectant mothers from Bragg and Pope Air Force Base.
Moore works for the Arts Council and also has her own business, Moore Exposure, that produces T-shirts, pencils, coffee mugs and other items with custom logos. The company sends a shipment every week or two, Moore said, to Afghanistan or Iraq full of items bearing the insignia of one Fort Bragg unit or another.
"They're more than just soldiers to us," she said. "They are not just our neighbors. They are our friends and our family. That's why we do what we do."