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.