March 26th, 2009
04:34 PM ET

Military family groups compete

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Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

A public rebuke of the First Lady will get you noticed, but it's unlikely to get your calls and e-mails returned by the White House.

Military Families United (MFU), which bills itself as "the nation's premier military family policy advocacy organization," says it is feeling a cold shoulder from the Obama White House.

The leadership of MFU – formed in 2008 and claiming 60,000 member families – already was irritated at not being consulted in advance of decisions about the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and photographs of flag-draped caskets arriving at Dover AFB, Del. So, when its bid to assist with Michelle Obama's March 12 visit to Fort Bragg, N.C., was rebuffed, out went this letter:

"We at Military Families United were excited at the prospect of working with your office to ensure that the voices and stories of our military families were heard by the American people and the world. However, after numerous attempts to contact your office, our phone calls have been unreturned and emails have gone unanswered. When we learned of your trip to Fort Bragg this week we reached out to your office and to Fort Bragg offering our help in coordinating meetings between you and military families, but were told that our help was unwanted and unneeded. We are the largest military family organization in the nation and we want to work with you. Unfortunately, our attempts thus far to assist you and your staff have been turned away," read the March 11 letter issued in the name of MFU president John Ellsworth.

Brian Wise, executive director of Military Families United, declines to identify who he says told him "in no uncertain terms" that "there is no need for you all to be involved," that the Fort Bragg event was being handled by the base and the White House.

A spokeswoman for the First Lady told CNN that "Our office has not received this letter" and said that a representative from Military Families United attended a meeting with the President about the release of a suspect in the Cole bombing. MFU said that meeting was held to inform the victims' families of a decision already made.

The First Lady's spokeswoman said outreach to military families is wide and "all kinds of groups are invited to the table."

One of those groups is Blue Star Families (BSF), which Wise calls "an organization developed solely by the Obama campaign in order to circumvent other military family organizations," his in particular. "I don't know that it is representative of the diversity and the opinions" of military families, he says.

(Displaying a blue star means that a family member is on active duty during a time of war. A gold star emblem means that a family member has been killed during that service.)

Kathy Roth-Douquet begs to differ.

Roth-Douquet was a founding member of Blue Star Families for Obama, a "pro-military, pro-Obama" campaign organization, and has helped acquaint Michelle Obama with military families. She is a former Clinton and Pentagon appointee and the co-author of "AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service-and How It Hurts Our Country." She lives at Parris Island, S.C., with her husband, a Marine Corps officer who twice has deployed to Iraq.

Since the election, Blue Star Families has shortened its name and changed its website to remove prominent mention of now-President Obama and, Roth-Douquet says, taken a non-partisan stance. BSF claims members in more than 68 military base communities.

This is more than an intra-mural squabble. When Congress considers spending on programs affecting military families, these groups want a seat at the table. When the news media seeks the opinions of military families, they want to be called.

Take the change in policy regarding the casket photos, for example.

Roth-Douquet says Blue Star Families was consulted. Permitting the camera coverage, but only with permission of the families of the fallen, was a compromise likely not to please either extreme, she said.

A statement in Ellsworth's name was addressed to Secy. of Defense Gates. "As the nation's leading military families organization, we are wondering why we were not consulted before your decision was announced today. We represent the largest number of military families around this nation, including those whose family members have paid the ultimate sacrifice for this country. If you did not consult with the largest military family organization, who did you speak to you?

MFU says that it has been consulted since then, as the Pentagon determines how it will be implemented.

Blue Star Families rejects Military Families United's claim of being "the nation's premier military family policy advocacy organization."

So does Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Families Association (NMFA), founded 40 years ago by Navy wives at a kitchen table in Annapolis, Md. "I was a little surprised when I first read that claim," Raezer says, noting that NMFA has four decades of accrued credibility with the military, groups supporting the military and members of Congress to go with its 40,000 paying members and another 100,000 people reached through its various projects.

Four decades later, the definition of a military family has evolved from spouses and children to include parents, and key issues are the frequency and length of deployments, the effects of deployments on children, military health care, job and education opportunities for spouses and the stresses of family reunification post-deployment.

Raezer notes that since the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns, a number of organizations working on behalf of military families have formed. Some, such as Military Families United, have non-profit tax status, hired staff and offices. Blue Star Families' organizational structure is still developing, Roth-Douquet says.

Raezer believes the concerns of military families are important enough that there should be room for everyone in the proverbial sandbox. "I don't know why this has to be a contest," she said.

Wise agrees, but he wants equal access to that sandbox.

Ellsworth, a 45-year-old police officer in Wixom, Mich., had no plans to become an activist. That changed when his son, Marine Corps Lance CPL Justin Mark Ellsworth, 20, was killed in Iraq on Nov. 13, 2004, by a remotely detonated improvised explosive device. Ellsworth decided that he would speak for his son on the accomplishments of the U.S. military in Iraq. "There wasn't anyone standing up for our military families," Ellsworth says. "After he (Justin) was killed, people wanted me to hate the military, to hate our President, to be angry." But that's not how he felt.

"I'm just a small town cop in the middle of Michigan, who never dreamed of being involved in something like that," says Ellsworth, who also is vice president of a separate, but related organization, Families United in Support of Our Troops and Their Mission, founded in 2005 as a counter to the anti-war campaigning of Gold Star mother Cindy Sheehan.

The National Military Families Association and Blue Star Families concentrate on "domestic" or "quality of life" issues. These are important, Ellsworth agrees, but says that Military Families United fills a void by also focusing on such "national security" issues as the military budget, the planned draw-down of troops from Iraq and increase in troops to Afghanistan, and the disposition of terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay.

Military families, Roth-Douquet contends, are just that, families. They are not homogeneous in their opinions. Nor does being a military family member make one an expert in how the military and its civilian leadership make and implement policy, she says.

"We are not cheerleaders," Ellsworth says. "We're out there to do a job, to make sure our military and their families are taken care of." MFU supported President Obama's intention to increase the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan and appointments to his national security team, but has been sharply critical of his decisions regarding terrorism suspects and the Guantanamo Bay detention center. According to MFU statements, the President’s decision to close the Gitmo detention center "may be putting political promises ahead of our national security" and by permitting the release of a terror suspect against whom the government last year dropped charges "the President is clearly taking actions that may endanger the United States and our national interests."

As for the letter to the First Lady, it was intended to be "stern in its content." "We are being put out to the woodshed," Ellsworth complains. "We played nice. I had much more faith in the office of the President and the White House that we could talk.

The final straw was the first lady's visit to Fort Bragg. "At this point, I don't want to say the gloves come off. But we are a group to be reckoned with. And they need to understand this, that we do have a little power to wield," Ellsworth warns, politely citing good relations with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.

As for the Obama White House, "We want them to have contact with us and acknowledge that we exist," Ellsworth says.

Filed under: David Schechter • Military • President Barack Obama • The Buzz
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Neo

    Is the MFU a gov't sponsored group? Why does the First Lady HAVE to respond to them, directly? I only ask because shouldn't some military actions remain internal? Why can't (or does it) the Gov't just appoint ONE Military Family Group? Why the need for so many similiar groups? Is it for money? I don't like that they called out the First Lady, that was unethical and un-american I wouldn't support them. No pun intended they sound very Militant.

    March 27, 2009 at 5:23 am |
  2. J.V.Hodgson

    One potential reason for the so called rebuff is security.
    The second is the base itself is not a public place and more to the point I am sure guys and gals there could make thier own feelings on Military families needs clear.

    March 27, 2009 at 12:39 am |
  3. Annie Kate

    I don't understand why the Obama White House would not want the MFU to help them in their relationship with the military families. They have the history and the knowledge of not only the families but the current issues that would give Obama a head start on dealing with any issues that need correction. It almost sounds like if your organization isn't founded by Obama or his campaign then you don't get a seat at the table. If that is the case I expected better than that from this administration.

    March 26, 2009 at 8:01 pm |
  4. Jim M

    I cannot seem to find " Military Families United " in the Better Bisuness Bureau's Directory of Accredited Businesses and Charities (26MAR2009).

    Also, as I recall Congress has officially recognized only two entities as representing the interests of military personnel: The Veterans Of Foreighn Wars & The American Legion. Has this changed?

    March 26, 2009 at 7:46 pm |
  5. Terry, TX

    "The First Lady’s spokeswoman said outreach to military families is wide and “all kinds of groups are invited to the table.”
    One of those groups is Blue Star Families (BSF), which Wise calls “an organization developed solely by the Obama campaign in order to circumvent other military family organizations,”

    What is with these Obama foot soldiers....why is the Obama campaign organizing the families of the military.... they are plenty...as listed in the article...that are legitimate and have been around. She needs to apologize and include them. Why is the Obama campaign sending foot soldiers to people's homes for signatures....shades of ACORN. Has anybody told him he is the president?

    March 26, 2009 at 7:20 pm |
  6. Stan

    What in the hell is wrong with some of our police officers. I just heard that a Dallas Cowboy ( Afro American ) was rushing to see his dying mother in law, and was detained by a heartless police officer. The officer said on type that, he could make the persons day a bad one, what in the hell is he doing being a Dam officer with that type of attitude!! That's is the problem, yes our officers work under tremendious stress, but when the situation is concerning life, why in the hell would any officer detain a person. If anything, he should try and escort him or her to where they need to get to. Officers are put in the position to serve, not to booster a dam badge. All of my Family member are officers in California and when they heard this, they were out raged by the Officers attitude. Some people should in now way become a officer in this Country, a badge is a opportunity to serve and protect, damet lets start doing just that. Chase the bad people selling and using drugs not the good people paying taxes and for your job!!

    March 26, 2009 at 6:42 pm |
  7. Megan, Washington

    The White House should make sure to include multiple military family groups. As the wife of an Army officer who is currently deployed to Iraq, I can tell you we are not all alike and do not all agree. The more opinions are heard, the better the decisions made by this new administation will be. Nothing is perfect, but using politics to determine which military families get a voice would be a disservice to the families who sacrifie so much for this country regardless whether their president is republican or democrat.

    March 26, 2009 at 6:26 pm |
  8. c,ca

    Maybe abbreviating their name as "MFU" is part of the problem. Maybe the White House is getting the wrong message 🙂

    March 26, 2009 at 6:17 pm |
  9. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    Further proof that the Obama administration is looking out for its own interests and not those of all military families. No big shock. Think about the debacle the Clinton years caused to our military, multiply it by infinity, and welcome to the Obama White House. Proving once more that a commander-in-chief with no military experience is a security risk to us all through inept policy and lack of care for those who protect and serve. Congratulations America. You voted him in. You get what you paid for. Unfortunately, the rest of us have to suffer for your idiocy as well.

    March 26, 2009 at 6:15 pm |
  10. Mike Syracuse, NY

    Did you even read the article Earle? It's not Bush's policies they object to. Michelle Obama's base visit was nothing but a photo op. Whether MFU is THE largest, or just A large military family organization, they certainly deserve a seat at the table when policy is being decided, not after the fact. Trusting that an ultra-liberal President, who never served, will have the best interest of our national security and the military and their families as a priority is a hugh mistake.

    March 26, 2009 at 6:14 pm |
  11. Eric

    I am sure those who sacrifice for their country are more interested in having their family interests served by those who care about them than they are in who is the most powerful lobbyiest in the country. Is there no issue that promotes unity and harmony across the normal political lines in the United States of America? If the USA is truly a world leader then the people of the world are watching how the country treats those who have sacrificed so much, some of which now have so very little. Has nothing been learned from the treatment of the Vietnam veterans? Infighting and political wrangling for personal gain will accomplish nothing.

    March 26, 2009 at 6:11 pm |
  12. Paul Cline

    The tone of the gentleman from MFU was disappointing to say the least. He embarrassed his organization and its goals. His letter to the First Lady's office reminded me of a spoilt child who is not getting his way. Additionally, as the article points out, his organization's mandate to speak for military families is less than certain.

    As the son of a veteran who served in three wars, and the father of a National Guard soldier, the plight of veterans and military families is foremost in my mind during any discussion regarding national security and military affairs. There are so many pressing issues facing this country's military and its families, that to have the leader of a national organization that purportedly exists to further their interests respond with such adolescent theatrics demeans and weakens their cause.

    Mr. Ellsworth’s behavior in this matter guarantees that this is one military family member that will think twice before acquiescing to the notion that he or his organization speak for anyone but themselves. My suggestion to Mr. Ellsworth is that if he feels he deserves a place at the table, he should first earn it.

    March 26, 2009 at 5:58 pm |
  13. earle,florida

    Maybe they should direct their outrage to King George,and Queen Laura via the Cheney's,....

    March 26, 2009 at 5:02 pm |