Michelle Obama meets military wives

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By Carol A. Clark

SANTA FE – Five wives shared with Michelle Obama the struggles they endure while their military husbands are deployed overseas.

Obama, the wife of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama, met with the women and an invitation only assembly in the Greer Garson Theater at the College of Santa Fe Thursday morning.

The potential first lady promised during the roundtable discussion that a Barack Obama administration would strengthen the military and improve health care for veterans.

Obama urged the women to share their stories about military service saying, “These stories help push our nation to make the changes that we're going to need to make for military families...and I remember every single one of them.”

Tears flowed on stage and in the audience as the women recounted raising children alone and coping with endless other challenges.

“If there's one thing I've learned from these roundtables is that when our military soldiers go to war – their families go with them and we have to remember that,” Obama said.

Choking back emotion, a wife described how her marriage fell apart after her husband returned from war.

“You're lying in bed across from the person you love - but it's not him,” she said. “After three months he moved in with his mother.”

She told Obama the machismo mentality in New Mexico keeps soldiers from seeking mental health care. “He kept saying nothing was wrong,” she said. She called for mandatory psychological evaluations for returning soldiers and said her problems began in 2005 and she and her husband are just beginning to get their lives back to normal.

Obama told the audience that the stories the wives were sharing are part of the cost of war.

“We've got to get to where the military starts owning that this is the cost of war,” Obama said. “We've got to realize that not just bullets and tanks but medical care and mental health care is part of the cost of war and if we're not willing to do that then we don't go to war.”

Some of the problems with the current system include a lack of adequate medical care for wounded troops returning home. Also, in 2005, a multi-billion dollar VA funding shortfall required Congress to step in and bail out the system.

Obama explained the benefits bureaucracy is broken. There are currently more than 400,000 claims pending with the Veterans Benefits Administration. VA error rates have grown to more than 100,000 cases a year, she said.

There is also a shortage of care for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) inflicted veterans.

Obama distributed the Obama-Biden plan to support and provide economic security for New Mexico’s military families.

Among their initiative's is creating a military families advisory board, support family readiness groups, work to bring pay parity, end stop loss, establish regularity in deployments and improve care for wounded soldiers.

The plan also promises to improve mental health treatment, help military spouses cope with deployments, allow reservists to train and rest between deployments and fight employment discrimination against National Guard and Army Reserve members.

“If a man or woman takes the oath to defend the Constitution and to die for this flag, then when they come home they should be first in line for jobs and health care...,” said a veteran on stage who took 30 years to seek help for his PTSD.

He said the VA is staffed with many Viet Nam veterans who want to ensure today's soldiers don't return home to the negative welcome his fellow soldiers endured – people spewing profanities at them and spitting on them in airports.

To improve the lives of military families, the Obama-Biden plan calls for the military and the Veterans Administration to provide a seamless transition for servicemen and women from active duty to civilian life.

The plan also calls for an expansion of VA centers to provide mental heath care, counseling, substance abuse assistance and employment assistance.

The Obama campaign is kicking off a statewide effort to register 30,000 new voters in 30 days in a state that the potential first lady says is critical to her husband's race.

If her husband becomes president, Obama said she looks forward to continuing her work on the issues close to her heart, which include supporting military families, helping working women balance work and family, and encouraging national service.

Following her roundtable discussion in Santa Fe, Obama held a “Women for Obama” voter registration rally in Albuquerque.

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain and his running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin are set to hold a campaign rally Saturday at the Albuquerque convention center.